WASHINGTON – Despite Democratic fears, predictions of the demise of President Barack Obama’s agenda appear exaggerated after a week of cascading controversies, political triage by the administration and party leaders in Congress and lack of evidence to date of wrongdoing close to the Oval Office.
“Absolutely not,” Steven Miller, the recently resigned acting head of the Internal Revenue Service, responded Friday when asked if he had any contact with the White House about targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for special treatment.
“The president’s re-election campaign?” persisted Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
“No,” said Miller.
The hearing took place at the end of a week in which Republicans repeatedly assailed Obama and were attacked by Democrats in turn — yet sweeping immigration legislation advanced methodically toward bipartisan approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure “has strong support of its own in the Senate,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a member of the panel.
Across the Capitol, a bipartisan House group reported agreement in principle toward a compromise on the issue, which looms as Obama’s best chance for a signature second-term domestic achievement. “I continue to believe that the House needs to deal with this,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is not directly involved in the talks.
The president’s nominee to become energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, won Senate confirmation, 97-0. And there were signs that Republicans might allow confirmation of Sri Srinivasan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, sometimes a stepping stone to the Supreme Court.
Separately, a House committee approved legislation to prevent a spike in interest rates on student loans on July 1. It moves in the direction of a White House-backed proposal for future rate changes to be based on private markets.
Even so, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said, “It’s been a bad week for the administration.”
Several Democratic lawmakers and aides agreed and expressed concern about the impact on Obama’s agenda — even though much of it has been stymied by Republicans for months already.
At the same time, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., voiced optimism that the IRS controversy would boost the push for an overhaul of the tax code, rather than derail it. “It may make a case for a simpler tax code, where the IRS has less discretion,” he said.
Long-term budget issues, the main flash point of divided government since 2011, have receded as projected deficits fall in the wake of an improving economy and recently enacted spending cuts and tax increases.
Even before Obama began grappling with the IRS, the fallout from last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and from the Justice Department’s secret seizure of Associated Press phone records, the two parties were at odds over steps to replace $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts. In particular, Obama’s call for higher taxes is a nonstarter with Republicans.
Other high-profile legislation and presidential appointees face difficulties that predate the current controversies.
Months ago, Obama scaled back requested gun safety legislation to centre on expanded background checks for firearms purchasers. That was derailed in the Senate, has even less chance in the House and is unlikely to reach the president’s desk.
Republicans oppose other recommendations from the president’s State of the Union address, including automatic increases in the minimum wage, a pre-kindergarten program funded by higher cigarette taxes and more federal money for highways and bridge repair.
In a clash that long predates the IRS controversy, Senate Republicans seem intent on blocking Obama’s nomination of Tom Perez as labour secretary. Gina McCarthy’s nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency is also on hold, at least temporarily, and Democrats expect Republican opposition awaits Penny Pritzker, Obama’s choice for commerce secretary.
Rhetorically, the two parties fell into two camps when it came to the White House troubles. Democrats tended to describe them as controversies, Republicans often used less flattering terms.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., accused the administration of fostering a “culture of intimidation.” He referred to the IRS, the handling of the Benghazi attack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ “fundraising among the industry people she regulates on behalf of the president’s health care law.”
Two days later, Camp, a 23-year veteran lawmaker, opened the IRS hearing by calling the agency’s actions part of a “culture of coverups and intimidation in this administration.” He offered no other examples.
Rep. Trey Radel, a first-term Florida Republican, said in an interview, “What we’re looking at now is a breach of trust” from the White House.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California offered a scathing response when asked if the controversies would hamper Obama’s ability to win legislation from the Republican-controlled House. “Well, the last two years there was nothing that went through this Congress, and it was no AP, IRS or any other (thing) that we were dealing with.”
“They just want to do nothing. And their timetable is never,” she said of GOP lawmakers.
Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave no ground on Benghazi, a dispute that increasingly centred on talking points written for administration officials to use on television after the attack last September in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
“It’s obvious it’s an attempt to embarrass President Obama and embarrass Hillary Clinton,” he said of Republican criticism that first flared during last year’s election campaign.
On a third front, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., resurrected legislation that would requiring a judge to approve subpoenas for news media communications records when investigating news leaks said to threaten the national security. It was a response to the FBI’s secret, successful pursuit of Associated Press phone records in a current probe.
While Democrats counterattacked on Benghazi and parried on leaks, they bashed the IRS’ treatment of conservative groups as improper if not illegal — and warned Republicans not to overplay their hand.