* Former House chairmen issue support for Rep. Barton
* Term limits meant to apply to yrs as chairman-letter
* Barton competing to head House energy panel
By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Three Republicans who have headed Congressional committees on Thursday supported outspoken Texas Representative Joe Barton to lead a key energy panel next year, setting up a showdown with leading candidate, Representative Joe Upton of Michigan.
Barton ran afoul of Republican leadership this year when he apologized to BP, calling it the victim of a White House "shake down" when the company had to set aside a $20 billion fund for victims of its Gulf oil spill. He later retracted his remarks.
With Republicans back in control of the House of Representatives, rivals are contending to lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee in January, when it will be in driver's seat on energy legislation in the new Congress.
Barton has served one term as chairman of the energy panel, and two terms as the top Republican on the committee under Democratic control of the House. Party rules limit Republicans to no more three consecutive terms as the head of a committee.
Barton is campaigning for a waiver from the rules. The former chairmen said he should take the helm of the committee, despite party term-limits.
"We believe he deserves that second term now, and that neither the spirit nor the letter of the rule was ever intended to prevent it," former House Ways and Means head Bill Archer, former House Transportation and Infrastructure head Bud Shuster and former House Natural Resources committee head Don Young said in a letter.
The letter said Republicans will set up their steering committee next week and elect committee chairmen "shortly thereafter."
The term limits, adopted in 1993, were not meant to cover years served as a ranking member, the Republicans wrote.
Barton is competing against Upton for the post as the head of the committee that helps craft energy legislation, as well as a range of other areas from healthcare to tourism.
John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, is also seeking the leadership spot if Barton does not receive a waiver.
Upton, the No. 2 Republican on the committee, has been criticized by some for being too moderate. [ID:nN03269394]
Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by David Gregorio