GOP SCRAMBLES TO CONTAIN BARTON MESS…. By all appearances, no one knew in advance what Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) was poised to do yesterday morning. The right-wing Texan hadn’t told his colleagues he would apologize to BP CEO Tony Hayward, and Barton hadn’t advertised the fact that he would side with the foreign oil giant over the White House.

A Republican staffer told Newsweek that “there was almost an instant admission that what [Barton] said could turn into a huge problem.”

And that it did. By yesterday afternoon, Republican leaders weren’t just bordering on panic, they were also hauling Barton to a private meeting, issuing very specific threats.

Under fire for appearing to shield BP from criticism Thursday morning, Rep. Joe Barton was told by House GOP leaders later in the day to apologize “immediately” or lose his position as the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, several Republican sources tell CNN.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, delivered the pointed demand to Barton, a Texas congressman.

“He was told apologize immediately or you will lose your position immediately,” said a Republican leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Wait, GOP officials were using a job opportunity as leverage to get a congressman to cooperate in a political plan hatched behind closed doors by party leaders? Why aren’t Darrell Issa and Fox News comparing this to Watergate?

Regardless, Politico‘s report accurately noted that Barton “handed Democrats just what they wanted: a Republican villain in the oil spill crisis.”

It would have been bad enough for the GOP if a backbencher had accidentally strayed wildly off message, but Barton, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is the face of the party on energy policy — and his comments were intentional. So rather than talking about BP’s culpability and the Obama administration’s response, Washington was fixated on a Texas Republican’s seemingly tone-deaf comments. […]

“Whether Mr. Barton realizes it or not, he certainly did no favors to every member of our conference, his Republican colleagues in the Senate, candidates out running and a lot of our vulnerables,” a Republican aide said. “What he did certainly did not help anybody.”

Well, except Democrats, that is.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.