House Republican leaders had hoped to spend their first full day back on Capitol Hill after a weeklong recess touting appropriations bills and new transparency initiatives.
Instead, they spent part of Tuesday doing damage control over comments their colleague, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had made over the weekend that threatened to divert attention from the GOP legislative agenda.
In a CNN interview on Sunday, the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee called White House spokesman Jay Carney a “paid liar” for the Obama administration as it sought to distance itself from the Internal Revenue Service scandal.
The accusation quickly drew attention from liberal operatives and then the media, and Democrats on Capitol Hill speculated that Issa’s words could cost him his credibility as a leading figure in Congress’s takedown of the IRS for targeting conservative groups.
“He ought to retract that statement unless he has specific evidence of that which I don’t believe he does,” said House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md. “It was a reckless statement and undermines his presentation as … a judicious leader of oversight.”
Even fellow Republicans on the other side of the Capitol suggested that Issa had been too rash with his choice of words.
“Let’s not make it personal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in a Fox News Radio interview on Monday.
It all put Republican leaders in a tight spot: They needed on Tuesday to in some way respond to direct questions from reporters about whether they supported Issa or aligned themselves with his remarks, and they also needed to downplay the significance of his choice of words.
Some GOP aides, on behalf of their bosses, dismissed Democratic critiques as attempts to distract from the majority party’s substantive work, while also blaming the press for buying into the distractions.
“The responsible story to cover this week is the conservatives who were victimized” by improper targeting by the IRS, said one House GOP aide of the chamber’s series of related hearings.
Of course, that’s the problem even some within the GOP feel about Issa’s remarks — they provide a distraction from the unsavory details about the IRS conduct under this administration’s watch.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in a Tuesday morning briefing with reporters would not say what he thought about the Issa comments, saying only that “there’s been an abuse of trust on the part of this administration,” and that “the president continues to try to distance himself from his administration.”
Cantor later on Tuesday went on CNN to offer a full-throated endorsement of Issa and the other chairman investigating the IRS.
“Chairman Darrell Issa, Chairman Dave Camp and the number of other Chairmen involved in the oversight process are doing a fantastic job at trying to stick to uncovering the facts and getting to the truth,” he said.
And Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, told CQ Roll Call in an e-mailed statement that, “Chairman Issa is providing tough, effective, and appropriate oversight in the face of White House obstruction.”
That Issa should draw attention, and ire, from comments he made in a television appearance isn’t a surprise: He’s often known for making some candid — some might say off-script — assessments.
He is also known for being combative and partisan in his leadership style, branding himself as the White House’s chief antagonist from the very beginning of his tenure as chairman of the committee in the 112th Congress.
Issa also clashes frequently with his ranking member, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. In a sign that tensions between the two might be coming to a breaking point, Cummings’ press shop on Tuesday released a video all about Issa’s tendency to “accuse, then try to prove” in his investigations.
Democrats think Issa has made the administration’s job easier by making himself the story, instead of the facts of the IRS scandal itself.
“It suggests that they’re out for political blood instead of a solution to the problem and, frankly, I think politically for them, it’s potentially really harmful,” said a House Democratic aide, who warned Issa’s words could affect the minority’s willingness to work in tandem with the majority.
He added that Issa wasn’t the only one making remarks that gave Democrats a moment’s pause: At the Ways and Means Committee’s first hearing following revelations of IRS misconduct, Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., made reference to the White House’s “culture of cover-up.”
Democrats remain sensitive to Republican suggestions that the White House could have sanctioned IRS targeting — given that at this point there is no evidence that the president or White House staff had any involvement.
“He may not have the same chutzpah as Issa,” the aide said, “but [Camp] was trying to make a very similar accusation.”
Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., wouldn’t speak specifically about Issa’s comments, saying that he did not know the context well enough to speculate.
He did say, though, that the focus had to remain on getting the facts across the congressional investigative community.
“The president, when all this broke, committed to getting the truth out on the table … and so we expect that everyone in the executive branch will fully cooperate,” Boustany said. “Anytime you start getting spin and some of the prefabrications, those don’t serve things very well. We really have to get the facts on the table.”