By Molly K. Hooper - 05/17/13 09:54 AM EDT
House Republicans say they will not overreach on probing the Obama administration, having learned lessons from investigating the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton administration.
But the key Republican lawmaker with jurisdiction on all these matters said that a rerun of the Clinton-era probes won't occur.
“These are all different agencies of government. This administration owns the failures, but not necessarily the direct blame … we’re looking at each individual case so it’s very different than what you view historically as a target where it [was] always about President Clinton. This isn’t about President Obama,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told The Hill.
Issa is not ruling out pursuing the White House if the investigations take lawmakers down that path: “We’re not accusing the president — unless there becomes evidence — or anyone else, unless there become evidence of any direct participation."
Some Republican operatives are privately worried that the party will overreach and that the political gifts given to the GOP will be fumbled away in the coming weeks and months.
The House is engaged in nearly half a dozen high-profile investigations of various administration actions including: the Sept. 11, 2012, deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, the IRS targeting of conservative-leaning groups, the DOJ’s seizure of reporter phone records, the Boston Marathon bombing and the Health and Human Service Secretary’s fundraising to promote ObamaCare.
Five House committees have jurisdiction over the Benghazi investigation, four have oversight of the Boston marathon bombing, two over the IRS and two over the DOJ.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Ohio) told The Hill that he hired a special oversight director in March, Rob Borden, at Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) behest, to help coordinate the various committee investigations.
“[Borden] was hired because the Speaker said, ‘We’re going to focus on [oversight] this year.’ And at the Speaker’s request, we hired Rob Borden, who is every day involved with the committees, their staff directors, counsel. I’m meeting with chairmen to talk about working together,” Cantor explained.
The No. 2-ranking House Republican added, “I am really proud of the work that they are doing, in a very deliberate manner, going about these hearings and investigations in the right way so we can provide the answers to the different problems that are out there.”
With a team of 233 House Republicans, though, it’s not unusual for some members to go off script.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) this week said that impeachment is not off the table, while other Republicans have compared Obama to former President Nixon.
Impeachment is not something that has been bandied about around the House GOP leadership table, according to GOP leadership aides and a House Republican member who spoke on background.
Leaders want their troops to proceed with fact-finding — not political finger-pointing.
In 1998, House GOP leaders focused on campaign-finance controversies swirling around then-President Clinton. The probes quickly took on a personal tone, and voters punished the GOP later that year following the impeachment of Clinton.
Former Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) led the investigation into allegations that Clinton sold overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom to Chinese political donors. He claimed that he was “out to get” Clinton and he called the president a “scumbag.”
Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was engaged in bitter, political feuds with Clinton. That, coupled with a far-reaching investigation led by Kenneth Starr, hurt the GOP’s poll numbers.
House Republicans expected they would significantly increase their majority six years into the Clinton presidency, but ended up losing five seats. Gingrich stepped down and Boehner was ousted from his leadership post.
Asked at a Thursday press conference if he still trusts the president, Boehner responded, “It’s not about trusting someone. Our job here is to get to the truth, and we’re going to get to the truth. And I know what you’re up to. I’m not taking the bait.”
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) who led several high-profile investigations during his tenure, including one targeted at the Teamsters in 1998, said that Boehner’s been through this before and knows how to manage investigations.
“If anybody knows how to do this, it’s John Boehner. He has done a lot of oversight, a lot of investigations —as does his staff — some of his staff were on the [Education and Workforce Committee] when we were doing [investigations]. I have a lot of confidence that John is going to go through this in a very professional and organized way. He will not let this get out of control,” Hoekstra said.
A senior GOP lawmaker said, “There is an old rule that says, ‘When your enemy is in the process of killing himself, [don’t get in the way]’ ... [the Obama administration is] in their own lockdown mode. As long as we do what is responsible, we don’t become the issue.”
Asked if the investigations could lead to impeachment charges, the lawmaker responded, “We don’t know enough to say where this is going or if there’s more to it or it is what it is ... let’s not get over our skis.”
Still, at least one GOP lawmaker said that his party shouldn’t hold back for fear of electoral losses.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said he’s willing to “accept the criticism” of being seen as political in conducting the investigations because he thinks House Republicans “look like wusses” if they fail to conduct tough oversight.
“This is not a stain on a dress. This is the IRS abusing their powers and really getting to the core values of freedom and freedom of speech and assembly in this nation, I don’t know if you can be harsh enough,” Terry told The Hill.
Despite the leadership-based coordinator, turf battles for control over the high-profile issues are likely to emerge.
For example, the Ways and Means Committee is set to hold a hearing this Friday on the IRS targeting of conservative organizations.
But Issa sent out a notice that his panel would hold a hearing on the matter next week, unbeknownst to the Ways and Means Oversight subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany (R-La.).
“Oh, is he?,” Boustany responded to The Hill when asked about Issa’s Wednesday hearing. “I’m not aware what Issa’s doing yet.”
Regardless, Boustany said, “Ways and Means has the most authority in this and that’s where I think you’ll see most of the activity.”