Wary Democrats say they are willing to work with the ‘new Darrell’ Issa

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has opened the final chapter of his tenure atop one of the most powerful House committees stressing something critics say is foreign to him: bipartisanship. 

Issa, who has relentlessly investigated the Obama administration and led the House’s charge to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, is term-limited as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman. Rep. John Mica (Fla.) will become the panel’s top Republican in 2015. 

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The California Republican has signaled a marked shift in the tenor he wants his committee to take this Congress, trading in the political grenades for olive branches in the form of weekly bipartisan meetings. He has pivoted away from the heated and divisive investigations that grabbed headlines to potentially long-term legislative reforms that could have wide-reaching effects.

“We’re going to have to work together in a way that we did not in the previous Congress,” said Issa at the committee’s first organizational meeting.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who has lodged some of the most vocal complaints about Issa’s treatment of Democrats on the panel, said he’s cautiously optimistic about the chairman’s shift. 

“I welcome the new Darrell and I will work with him if he wants to work across the aisle,” said Connolly, who has been working with Issa’s staff on an information technology (IT) bill. 

It’s not that Issa isn’t proud of the committee’s work in the last Congress; he lauds his tireless, 18-month investigation of failed gun-tracking operation Fast and Furious as one of his biggest successes. 

But with President Obama’s reelection no longer in question, the man Republicans had looked to with hopes of unearthing a damning administration scandal now has the political space to dig into legislative issues that work best with support from both sides of the aisle.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), who traded 24 months’ worth of barbs with Issa, is hopeful about the change in tone and is eager to meet the chairman halfway.

“There’s no doubt about it that actions will speak louder than words, but I’m praying and hoping that we will not just move to common ground but to higher ground, and really do some things that will help all of our constituents,” said Cummings in an interview with The Hill. 

“I believe that Issa is sincere, and soon that’ll be quite evident. If it’s not, then I guess we fall back to where we were before.”

Issa knows he has ruffled more than a few feathers with Democrats and the administration, which hired a communications specialist to specifically deal with his attacks on the White House, waged through his own media team and on cable news shows.

So he’s come out of the gates this year prioritizing a bevy of issues — from postal reform and waste in the government’s IT sector to increasing data transparency and eliminating HGH use in the National Football League — that will easily attract significant support from his Democratic colleagues and demonstrate his intentions to make good on his promise of a more bipartisan committee. 

“In trying to pursue common ground in this Congress, I don’t think either Mr. Issa or Mr. Cummings has any loss of memory about anything one side or the other did or said last Congress,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa. “But in terms of being productive, members who often have different philosophies can find common ground and agree on things rather than looking for excuses to not agree on things.”

It is unclear why Issa is now embracing bipartisanship, but he could be laying the groundwork for a bid for higher office or a leadership position. The ambitious lawmaker has previously run for the Senate, mulled a bid for governor and lost a House leadership race. 

Issa declined to be interviewed for this article.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who sits on the Oversight panel, told The Hill that both Cummings and Issa have thick skins. 

While many of the their battles that played out in the media were the effect of political posturing, they have a workable relationship, he said.

“Some of it is probably that we really just disagree on some issues,” said Gowdy. “Some of it is, if the media were kicked out of our hearings, I don’t know whether we would all act the same or not. You don’t always make the news for civility.”

However, Issa hasn’t abandoned his oversight role and has missed no opportunity to continue criticizing the administration on hot-button issues that he probed in the last Congress, from applauding the resignation of Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer to blasting Obama for lifting a federal pay freeze. And his ongoing lawsuit against Holder will continue to be an area of contention with Democrats.   

But within the first month alone, Issa’s office has issued seven bipartisan press releases — a rarity in the last Congress. His staff is making the uncommon move to proactively meet with Democratic staffers, even those at the tip of the lawmakers’ publicly political spear: the media relations teams. 

Some Democrats are skeptical of the peace offering that Issa has presented, though, wondering if they’re walking into the lion’s den only to be caught off-guard. 

Connolly said, “We have full justification to be a little on our guard. He took sadistic pleasure in humiliating the minority over the last two years. I think he’s got a lot of work ahead of him to repair those relationships and that image.”