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Will the IRS, Benghazi probes jeopardize Obama's second-term agenda?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – With congressional probes of the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi likely to remain in the spotlight, both allies and critics of President Barack Obama are predicting that fallout from the revelations could endanger key parts of his second-term agenda.

While U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt said last week that “it’s not a good start of the second term,” his colleague U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said she is worried that the controversies will distract from the big issues that Congress should be tackling before the 2014 political season starts in earnest.

“They have balloons and confetti dropping on the Republican side of the aisle,” McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters. But she added, “I really hope that these incidents – while they deserve attention and they deserve oversight, accountability and changes – don’t become the entrée, with the rest of the work we have to do being just the appetizer or dessert.”

For Blunt, R-Mo., and many other GOP lawmakers, the word “incidents” is not strong enough to describe the IRS targeting of tea party and other conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, as well as the inadequate defense of the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, last September, and what some regard as a partial coverup of its details.

“The problem the president has at this moment is: wherever the old Harry Truman’s ‘The Buck Stops Here’ sign is, it’s certainly not on the president’s desk,” Blunt told reporters last week.

He cited a recent editorial saying that “the only part of the federal government that seems to be working for Barack Obama is Seal Team 6” – a reference to the Navy Seal team that killed Osama bin Laden two years ago.

“He’s going to have to take more responsibility here and get this straightened out,” Blunt said of the IRS and Benghazi problems.

Late last week, Obama and his administration seemed to be doing just that. He demanded, and accepted, the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner and nominated a replacement. His administration released emails that appear to show minimal White House involvement in the at times misleading Benghazi “talking points” last September.

On Sunday, White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer argued on NBC's Meet the Press that “there is no question that Republicans are trying to make political hay” out of the IRS and Benghazi controversies.

He contended that, even if Obama had been aware of the IRS inquiry earlier, it would have been inappropriate for him to interfere at that point. And he asserted that congressional Republicans had circulated edited versions of administration emails on Benghazi to distort their overall thrust.

Trying to defuse two other issues that made headlines last week, Obama also said he had instructed the Pentagon to deal more effectively with the growing problem of sexual violence in the military – a topic that McCaskill has pushed to become a top priority in the armed services.

And, in response to reports that the Justice Department as part of a leak probe had collected two months of telephone records from 20 phone lines used by Associated Press reporters, White House officials said they are trying to rejuvenate a watered-down Shield Law to protect journalists' privileges.

GOP leaders take aim at Obama's administration

On Sunday's political talk shows, Republican leaders ramped up their criticism of Obama and his administration on the IRS, Benghazi and other issues.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the IRS focus on conservative groups was an indication of a wider “culture of intimidation” in the Obama administration.

However, U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that is looking into the IRS reports, conceded that – at this point – “we don't have anything to say that the president knew about it.”

On Friday, two developments in the GOP-led House indicated that the IRS and Benghazi issues, at least, are gaining traction:

  • At the initial House hearing on the IRS targeting, the inspector general who probed the IRS screening revealed that he had told senior Treasury Department officials in June 2012 about the investigation – the first indication that Obama administration officials were aware of the probe during the presidential campaign year.
  • On the Benghazi inquiry, the lawmaker leading that investigation – U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House oversight committee – subpoenaed the co-author of a report that slammed the State Department but didn't interview then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Issa wants his panel to depose that official, retired ambassador Thomas Pickering, on Thursday.

“We might see a number of hearings occur, and that’s the legitimate responsibility of the legislative branch,” said Blunt, predicting congressional investigations in both the House and the Senate on the IRS issue.
“These are serious things that need to be dealt with in a serious way,” Blunt said. Asked whether he though the IRS and Benghazi problems are likely to affect Obama’s agenda, Blunt said, “It will have an impact. Before too many months, we’ll be into a moment where the 2014 elections have a lot of impact on what happens” in Congress.

Blunt added, in an editorial comment: “So far, most of what the president has done this year has been already focused on the 2014 elections, rather than getting anything done this year that could actually happen.”

But McCaskill – who has criticized the administration’s handling of military sexual assault issues and allegations that it may have interfered with the top auditor of U.S. spending in Afghanistan – urged lawmakers to focus on the big issues like immigration and jobs.

“It is going to be a convenient distraction, as to why they [congressional Republicans] are refusing to allow us to go to conference on the budget, and moving forward with immigration reform, and other issues that I think are pretty important,” said McCaskill.

She said that the IRS revelations and some other matters reflect “serious wrongdoing, and people need to be held accountable in several different incidents, and there’s problems that need to be fixed.” But she said jobs, the economy and infrastructure are more pressing for the nation as a whole.

One of those issues is the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. In Missouri, McCaskill said, “we are really facing a crisis in infrastructure. The Missouri legislature doesn’t appear to be interested in funding infrastructure in Missouri, and certainly what we are able to provide at the federal level is grossly inadequate to keep our bridge safe, our roads, our trains, our water projects” in operation.

More executive orders on jobs, infrastructure?

Given his problems getting any significant bills through Congress, one approach Obama is likely to take is to issue more executive orders that have an impact on the economy and other issues. At an appearance Friday at a dredge company in Baltimore, Obama announced that he had ordered a speedup in the permitting process for big infrastructure projects.

“We’ve had a little difficulty getting our Republican friends to work with us to find a steady funding source for these projects that everybody knows need to happen,” Obama said.

“But in fairness, one of the problems we’ve had in the past is that sometimes it takes too long to get projects off the ground. There are all these permits and red tape and planning, and this and that, and some of it’s important to do, but we could do it faster.” 

The president said he was “directing agencies across the government to do what it takes to cut timelines for breaking ground on major infrastructure projects in half.  And what that will mean is that construction workers get back on the jobs faster.  It means more money going back into local economies.”

On at least one of Obama's major priorities – overhauling the nation’s immigration laws – there still appear to be good prospects for congressional action this year, although the final bill may be far weaker than what Obama wants. But gun control legislation seems stalled, and there are danger signs in the budget and health-care disputes.

Will health care get tangled in IRS disputes?

Some lawmakers fear that one of Obama’s top priorities during his second term – implementing the Affordable Care Act, known by some as Obamacare – may get tangled in the IRS disputes.

On Thursday, the House voted for the 37th time to repeal Obamacare, 229-195, with all Republicans from Missouri and downstate Illinois voting with the majority. The Democratic-led Senate won't advance that bill, but - if the GOP uses the issue in political campaigns and takes over the Senate in 2014 - the next Congress might well succeed in altering the health care law.

Among the many GOP lawmakers trumpeting the vote, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, claimed that Obamacare “is already devastating our small businesses, their employees and hard-working American families.”

Noting that he has voted to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act every time, Luetkemeyer promised to continue those efforts, “especially in light of new revelations about the gathering of personal information by the Internal Revenue Service, which is supposed to serve as the main enforcer for Obamacare.” 

Indeed, during much of Thursday’s debate, House Republicans hammered at the fact that the IRS will be tasked next year with enforcing the “individual mandate” requiring everyone to have health insurance. The White House emphasizes that the IRS role in the health care has absolutely nothing to do with the current dispute over tax-exempt groups, but that has not stopped GOP critics from using the issue.

On Friday, for example, Blunt – a harsh critic of the ACA -- went to Springfield, Lebanon, Columbia and Boonville to discuss what he described as the negative impacts of Obamacare on Missouri business owners and other groups. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, has used his position as chairman of the House Small Business Committee to highlight what he regards as the negative impacts of the health care law on businesses.

Even though the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate will not take up the repeal, Republicans are hoping that their opposition will resonate with voters in 2014. On Sunday, Senate GOP leader McConnell predicted that ObamaCare would prove to be a pivotal issue in many races next year, including his own.

House may try to move up debt ceiling debate

Perhaps the biggest congressional budget battle will be keyed to the next increase in the government’s debt ceiling.

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office said the nation would reach its borrowing limit in October or November. With some budget tricks, the Treasury Department might be able to delay the deadline until December.

While Obama has said he would only accept a “clean” debt ceiling bill – with no budget or deficit riders attached – House leaders will push hard for a major debate keyed to the bill.

In fact, some GOP leaders want to push up the debt ceiling debate to this summer, giving Republican House members time to “sell” their plan to constituents during legislative breaks in August.

Meanwhile, House Republicans late last week started discussing new spending targets for appropriations bills for the coming year. The departments of Education, Labor, and Health & Human Services could see their budgets slashed by a fifth, but the Pentagon would see some of its spending power restored under early GOP plans.

In the back of nearly everyone’s mind – from Capitol Hill to the White House – is the fact that, as the 2014 elections draw closer, all major debates and votes become more political. And the IRS, Benghazi and other probes may delay progress on some White House priorities until it is too late.

“It is likely to have some ongoing political consequences,” said Blunt. “The opportunities in the Senate for the 2014 elections are there,” especially in the Senate, where some senior Democrats are retiring.

“We’ll see what happens. I think both parties should be careful here that you don’t overextend yourself one way or another.”

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.