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GOP prepares investigations of White House under siege

One month before he was confirmed to head the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, California Republican Rep.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., argues that Washington played a role in the IRS scandal. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., argues that Washington played a role in the IRS scandal.

One month before he was confirmed to head the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa described his role as an expansion of the post under his predecessors. His job as the Republicans' chief investigator would not be merely to evaluate policy, but to "measure failures."

By that measure, Darrell Issa's having quite a week.

As the Obama administration faces down three major controversies, including a renewed probe into its handling of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, the IRS's targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups ahead of the 2012 election, and the Department of Justice's seizure of phone records from the Associated Press, Issa is resuming his role as chief watchdog--and chief antagonist--to the administration.

The 59-year-old congressman and self-made millionaire is front and center on the issues plaguing the White House, as his committee and others prepare to stage hearings on the IRS and the DOJ subpoenas. And after eight months, he's nowhere near done on Benghazi.

Issa's Oversight Committee, along with the House Ways & Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, have pledged to investigate the IRS's transgressions. In a Tuesday morning interview, Issa seized on the president's claim Monday that his administration could fairly investigate any wrongdoing.

“How dare the administration imply that they’re going to get to the bottom of it,” Issa said Tuesday on CBS This Morning. “This was the targeting of the president’s political enemies, effectively, and lies about it during the election year so that it wasn’t discovered until afterwards. The fact is this is the kind of investigation that has to be open and transparent to the American people.”

The president, during a bilateral meeting and press conference with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday, called the situation “outrageous," saying, "I have got no patience with it, I will not tolerate it, and we will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this."

Issa took a harder stand last Friday, when he called on the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration to look into the matter, charging the IRS with  "political retaliation" and calling its practice of targeting citizens based on their political beliefs "unconscionable."

Five separate committee investigations are probing the administration's response to the siege of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, after an attack killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Issa's Oversight Committee heard from three State Department officials it labeled "whistleblowers" on Wednesday in an attempt to uncover discrepancies between their on-the-ground accounts and the State Department's official post-mortem report, co-chaired by Admiral Mike Mullen and Ambassador Thomas Pickering at the helm of State's Accountability Review Board. On Monday, Issa sent letters to Pickering and Mullen requesting they take part in interviews ahead of the next public hearing.

A defiant President Obama on Monday called the renewed push to shed light on an alleged "cover up" over Benghazi "a sideshow" and "a political circus," insisting "there's no there, there."

"What we've been very clear about throughout was that immediately after this event happened, we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had occurred, what the motivations were. It happened at the same time as we had seen attacks on the U.S. embassies in Cairo as a consequence of this film. And nobody understood exactly what was taking place during the course of those first few days," Obama said.

At the heart of the eight-month-old controversy is whether the Obama administration altered the talking points that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice spoke from on the Sunday talk shows following the attack, in, Republicans say, an effort to recast the deadly events as stemming from a spontaneous protest, rather than a premeditated terrorist attack.

The Obama administration cites the fact that it called the Benghazi attack "an act of terror" the following day, during an address in the Rose Garden. But Issa's not satisfied.

"An ‘act of terror’ is different than a ‘terrorist attack,’" Issa said Monday on Fox News after the President's press conference. "The truth is, this was a terrorist attack, this had al-Qaida at it.”

On the latest White House headache, the DOJ's seizure of AP journalists' phone records, Issa contends that the Justice Department had other avenues available for obtaining the information.

“One of the amazing things is, they have the ability to listen very transparently to all the government phones, and all the government activity,” Issa said in a Monday interview. “They had an obligation to …look for every other way to get it before they in fact intruded on the freedom of press.”

Issa said the House Judiciary Committee will "have the lead" on that investigation. He will likely work with that committee's chairman.

Government watchdog is a role Issa has grown increasingly comfortable with since taking office in January 2011. He once said his goal was to hold "seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks." In actuality, Issa held just under 200 hearings between January 2011 and January 2013, almost exactly on point with former Chairman Henry Waxman's 203 oversight hearings in two years. Waxman, a democrat, steered the committee under former Republican President George W. Bush.

At this moment alone, Politico reported that approximately one third of all House committees "are looking into some aspect of the Obama administration."

An aggressive Oversight Committee Chairman with a trademark conservative agenda focused on trimming the deficit and shrinking government could threaten to derail the Obama administration's legislative priorities on a good week. But as the administration plays defense on three watershed issues simultaneously, Issa's impact is only beginning to be felt on the Hill. It's not the first time the two sides have faced off.

The bank bailout, the housing crisis, medicare spending, Elizabeth Warren's nomination to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the ATF  "gunwalking" operation nicknamed "Fast and Furious," and the HHS mandate requiring insurance plans to cover birth control have all been in Issa's cross-hairs.