The Week in Washington: IRS row rocks admin, Obama under pressure over leak investigations and more

Larry Smith's weekly round up of American politics.

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Changes at IRS amid uproar over Tea Party targeting

The head of America’s Internal Revenue Service has been replaced following news the organisation unfairly investigated conservative groups.

At a press conference on Wednesday, President Obama revealed that acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller had resigned from the agency after failing to inform Congress about employees who aggressively targeted Tea Party groups applying for tax-exempt status. The president said misconduct at the federal agency was “inexcusable” and pledged to work “hand in hand” with Congress on the case. Obama named a successor to Miller on Thursday, shortly before it was announced another top IRS official had left their job.

The US Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration issued a report on Tuesday which found the IRS had used “inappropriate criteria” in identifying for review Tea Party organisations that applied for tax-exempt status as ‘501(c)(4)s’. Officials were found to have looked at names and policy positions of the groups in question, which were seeking recognition as organisations not formed for profit and exclusively promoting ‘social welfare’. IRS agents are only supposed to search for indications of political campaign intervention when considering groups for review. In a written response, the IRS said those involved had not acted out of a “political and partisan viewpoint.”

The anger at the IRS’s misconduct has unsurprisingly been strongest on the Republican side of the aisle. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell upbraided the federal outlet for a “thuggish abuse of power”, and House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa has called Miller’s predecessor Douglas Shulman to testify at a hearing next week. Right-wing GOP lawmakers have also claimed the scandal casts doubt over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and indulged in talk of presidential impeachment, even though the inspector general found no evidence of outside influence on the IRS.

There has been considerable press commentary about what this scandal, the row over the AP leak (see below) and Benghazi mean for President Obama’s second term. The New York Times’ Peter Baker suggests the controversies have called into question President Obama’s ‘ability to master his own presidency, while Politico’s Glenn Thrush argues they have exposed major weaknesses in White House operations. Others are less pessimistic. Slate’s Dave Weigel wonders if moderate Republicans scarred by the gridlock that accompanied the Lewinsky Scandal over a decade ago might now be more determined to cut deals with Obama on issues such as immigration.

Prez hits back on leak investigations

President Obama has refused to apologise for aggressively probing leaks after it was revealed his administration had seized the phone records of journalists during an investigation into the unauthorised release of classified information.

At a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, Obama said he had no regrets about prosecuting individuals who leaked classified information relating to national security because they placed the US at risk. Responding to news the Department of Justice subpoenaed the phone records of Associated Press reporters without their outlet’s consent, he added it was important to protect American personnel around the world while accommodating “the need for information”.

Revelations that the Department of Justice obtained the phone records of AP journalists as part of an inquiry into a terror plot leak have buffeted the administration in recent days. Attorney General Eric Holder faced tough questions over the case when he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, even after he claimed he had recused himself from the matter and was not responsible for approving the contentious subpoena. President Obama has expressed strong confidence in his AG’s performance, despite some calls for Holder to quit.

In contrast to the IRS scandal, Republicans have been comparatively muted about the AP affair. GOP Senate Whip John Cornyn has said it is too early to condemn Holder’s conduct, and instead is calling for more focus on the source of the terror leak. Cornyn’s Democratic colleagues have been less charitable towards the administration: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said there was “no way to justify” the DOJ’s conduct, while Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy is demanding the department explain its behaviour.

The Obama administration’s decision to push a media shield law in the wake of the AP scandal has been met with derision in parts of the press. 

Emails finger CIA in Benghazi talking points row

The White House has published email correspondence which suggests CIA officials were responsible for altering key parts of controversial talking points used by the administration in the aftermath of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last year.

Nearly 100 pages of emails sent immediately after last September’s attack were released on Wednesday evening. The documents revealed neither the CIA nor the FBI knew of Al-Qaeda involvement in the attacks, and that deputy CIA director Michael Morell removed references to warnings his agency had made about Islamic extremism from the now-infamous talking points used by UN envoy Susan Rice. Emails leaked by Republicans last week had implied State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was responsible for cutting the references to extremism in Eastern Libya for fear critics would “beat” the State Department. There have since been suggestions that GOP officials responsible for the release of that information doctored Nuland’s comments.

The new information has not satisfied Republican lawmakers who are still angry about the administration’s response to the attack. House Speaker John Boehner said he hoped the release was a sign of “more cooperation to come” from the White House, but described the documents as “limited” in scope. Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz said the emails were “hand-picked”, and questioned why the Obama administration had not released all unclassified documents available.

As well as exonerating Nuland and other State Department officials, the latest batch of emails apparently clear Ambassador Rice of doctoring the talking points she used when appearing on television the first Sunday after the attack. Influential Bloomberg commentator Jeffrey Goldberg said the revelations debunked claims Rice had been an “essential player” in the furore, while former national security aide Tommy Vietor called on her GOP opponents to apologise for previous attacks.

In related news, the two co-chairmen of an independent investigation into Benghazi have demanded a public hearing after House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa characterised their work as inadequate.

Senate’s immigration mark-up hits bump in the road

The Senate panel considering immigration legislation has sought to navigate a disagreement over visas, as a bipartisan group working on reform in the House looks to complete its work.

During another session on the Gang of 8’s immigration bill yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to reach accord on a visa programme for high-skilled foreign workers. Democrat Chuck Schumer had been seeking a compromise on an amendment proposed by veteran Republican Orrin Hatch which would make it easier for high-skilled aliens to obtain employment and ease requirements obliging firms to first offer jobs to Americans. The issue, which is a potential flashpoint between business groups and unions, has been deferred to next week for further discussion.

On Tuesday, the committee rejected other GOP amendments to the Gang’s legislation, including an attempt by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to ensure all visa holders were subject to biometric screening when leaving the US. The measure had been endorsed by leading Gang of 8 member Marco Rubio, but was dismissed by several senators as too costly. A move by Senator Sessions to cap legal immigration was vetoed by all other members.

Meanwhile in the House, a cross-party group attempting to formulate its own legislation on immigration has finally reached an agreement. Republican member John Carter, who had been threatening to walk away from talks amid a dispute over healthcare, revealed the group was now united on the substance of a bill and only needed to draft legislative text. The full package is expected to be published by the start of June.

The House Judiciary Committee has said it will debate the bill currently making its way through the Senate next Wednesday. 

House GOP leaders mum on debt ceiling strategy

Republican leaders in the House gave no hint about their preferred approach to the debt ceiling during a meeting of their representatives on Wednesday, which ended without definitive agreement on a negotiating position.

The National Review revealed that both Speaker Boehner and Budget Chair Paul Ryan stayed silent while the issue was debated at length by members of the Republican caucus. Senior conservative congressmen were less inhibited, with Ryan’s vice chair Tom Price warning the GOP had to win a messaging war over the summer and Texas representative Joe Barton suggesting his colleagues should tie a rise in the ceiling to the passage of Ryan’s budget plan. There were also calls to link a ceiling hike to the direct repeal of President Obama’s health law. Another bid to invalidate Obamacare passed the House late Thursday, but has no chance of progressing further.

Politico has since reported that the outline of the House GOP’s debt ceiling demand will probably include spending cuts, a framework for tax reform and a ‘jobs’ element relating to the Keystone pipeline. The aim is to have something concrete out before Congress’s August recess, so lawmakers can sell the plan to their constituents.

Speaking to reporters at his regular news conference yesterday morning, Boehner glossed over his party’s lack of a formal negotiating stance and urged the White House to come to the table on the debt ceiling. The Ohioan said the ceiling had to be dealt with in a “responsible way” and put the onus on President Obama to do something about “out of control spending”.

Budget deficit dips further than expected

A new report issued by the Congressional Budget Office has shown the federal deficit falling by more than previously forecast.

Findings from the agency, which provides economic data to Congress, showed the federal budget shortfall dropping to $642bn, 4 per cent of GDP and around $200bn less than it estimated three months ago. Analysts have attributed the surprise findings to high revenue generated by stronger-than-expected economic growth.

News in Brief

  • Reid says powerful constituencies won’t get special sequestration fixes [TPM]; no of federal workers furloughed soars [Politico]
  • Manchin says he’s still hopeful on background checks [TPM]
  • Senate committee narrowly backs Perez for labour post [Reuters]; Moniz in at Energy [CNN]
  • DC circuit pick wins unanimous backing from Judiciary panel [TPM]
  • Republicans drop opposition to EPA nominee [WSJ]
  • First Medicare chief confirmed in years [NPR]
  • FBI chief concedes Boston failures [Politico]
  • Kerry expects Syrian government to attend transition talks [AP]; Obama says US has seen evidence of chemical weapons use [BBC News]
  • Prez dips toe into UK’s Europe debate [BBC News]
  • Congress prepares to pass more Iran sanctions [Roll Call]
  • Pentagon pressed to act on sexual assault in military [Guardian]
  • GOP senators assail Sebelius over Obamacare fundraising efforts [Washington Times]
  • Probe into source of Menendez accusations [WaPo]
  • Obama and Biden release financial disclosure statements [WaPo]
  • Minnesota becomes 12th state to legalise gay marriage [NBC News]
  • Markey extends advantage over Gomez in MA special [BuzzFeed]
  • McAuliffe leads in new VA gov poll [Politico]
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