White House Controversies Unite Republicans, Divide Democrats

Shane Goldmacher
National Journal

As three separate scandals—the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of the tea party, the Justice Department’s phone-records grab from the Associated Press, 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.

But congressional Democrats—knowing the fate of a progressive agenda and their own priorities lie with the continued political strength of the White House—aim to treat the emerging scandals independently. It is largely the same hymnal the Obama administration is singing from.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats are seeking to cordon off the most toxic scandal—currently seen as the IRS case—while remaining loyal to President Obama on the long-simmering Benghazi probe. And in the phone-records case, Democrats began on Tuesday to distance themselves from the White House.

“I have trouble defending what the Justice Department did,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.

But Reid, a former boxer who knows the best defense can be a good offense, threw some punches of his own. He said Republicans were “hyperventilating about Benghazi.” While he condemned the IRS’s actions, he also questioned whether Karl Rove and others who registered political organizations as “social welfare” nonprofits had twisted the tax code to their advantage. “I ask: What has Karl Rove ever done to improve the social welfare of the United States?” Reid said.

Republicans are determined to use the trio of scandals to undercut Obama’s ambitious second-term agenda by eroding public trust in the White House.

“This sounds like a president somewhat drunk on power,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said during a Fox News appearance.

A critical test of Democrats’ continued loyalty to the White House will come Wednesday, when Attorney General Eric Holder appears before the House Judiciary Committee in an oversight hearing. How aggressively panel Democrats go after him for the Justice Department phone-records case will be a strong indicator of whether Democratic lawmakers will continue to toe a party line still defined by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

No one—not at the White House or on Capitol Hill—was defending the IRS’s targeting of conservative activists. The president himself has tried to distance himself from the controversy, saying on Monday that he learned about it the same way as most Americans—“from the same news reports.” He condemned the allegations as “outrageous.” And on Tuesday, 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’s actions “completely inappropriate.” Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., called it an “outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public’s trust,” while warning the IRS to brace for a full investigation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., one of Obama’s fiercest defenders on the Hill, said the IRS’s actions should be “condemned.”

On Friday, the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing probing the IRS; it was jointly announced by Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich. The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations announced they will probe the IRS’s activities, as well.

In contrast, those questioning the Benghazi attacks remain divided along party lines. Obama on Monday called questions about altered talking points “a sideshow,” and congressional Democrats have largely gone along.

But in the case of Justice seizing phone records at AP, there is angst from both sides.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he was “very troubled by these allegations and wants to hear the government’s explanation.” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., issued a statement 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.”

Greg Mueller, a GOP strategist with ties to the tea-party movement, said the key for Republicans is tying the three scandals to conservatives’ limited-government message. “All of these are sub-stories. They lead to a much larger umbrella story, which is big government leads to corruption and scandal,” Mueller said.

He scoffed at Democratic attempts to cordon off the scandals. “That’s exactly what the Nixon people tried to do,” he said. “It was just a little burglary at the Watergate. I don’t think that’s going to work.”