As three separate scandals – the IRS targeting the tea party, the Justice Department’s phone-records grab from the AP, and Benghazi – erupt simultaneously, congressional Republicans are hoping to fold them into a single narrative of an unaccountable and overreaching White House that cannot be trusted.
As Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., put it colorfully during a Fox News appearance, “This sounds like a president somewhat drunk on power.”
But congressional Democrats – knowing the fate of a progressive agenda and their own priorities lie with the continued political strength of the White House – hope to treat and triage the emerging scandals independently. It is largely the same hymnal the Obama administration is singing from – in hopes of avoiding a weakened White House.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats are seeking to cordon off the most toxic scandal – currently believed to be the IRS case – while remaining loyal to Obama on the long-simmering Benghazi probe. In the phone-records case, Democrats began to distance themselves from the White House on Tuesday.
“I have trouble defending what the Justice Department did,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
Republicans, meanwhile, want to use the trio of concurrent scandals to erode public trust in the White House and undercut President Obama’s ambitious second-term agenda only months after his inauguration.
“Americans should take notice that top Obama administration officials increasingly see themselves as above the law and emboldened by the belief that they don’t have to answer to anyone,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., one of the lead investigators of the administration in Congress.
The president himself has tried to distance himself from the IRS case, saying on Monday that he learned about it “from the same news reports” as most Americans. He condemned the targeting of conservative activists by tax authorities, saying, if true, the actions were “outrageous.”
On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said he had ordered an investigation of the IRS.
But congressional Democrats are wondering what took the White House so long. Already, top Democratic lawmakers have signaled they won’t have the administration’s back if the IRS scandal spreads to the White House.
On Monday alone, Reid called the IRS’ actions “completely inappropriate.” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said it was an “outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public’s trust,” while warning the tax agency to brace for a full investigation. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, one of Obama’s fiercest defenders on the Hill, said the IRS’ actions deserved to be “condemned.”
This Friday, the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing probing the IRS, which was announced jointly by the top Republican and Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.
In contrast, those questioning the Benghazi attacks remain firmly divided along party lines. President Obama called questions about altered talking points “a sideshow” on Monday and congressional Democrats have largely gone along.
In the emerging case of the Justice Department seizing phone records of the Associated Press, Reid’s comments calling the actions “inexcusable” was the most prominent of a growing number of cracks in a unified front to have emerged.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said Monday he was “very troubled by these allegations and wants to hear the government’s explanation.” And freshman Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., issued a statement Tuesday saying, “It's incumbent on the Justice Department to explain why they've seized telephone records from reporters and editors at The Associated Press so that their actions don't have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press.”
A critical test will come on Wednesday, when Holder himself will appear before the House Judiciary Committee in an oversight hearing that is now expected to include heavy questioning about the tapping of reporters’ phones.
How aggressively panel Democrats go after Holder will be a strong indicator of whether Democratic lawmakers will continue to toe a party line still defined by 1600 Pennsylvania.