Sunday, May 19, 2013

White House accuses Republicans of 'fishing expeditions'

By Tabassum Zakaria and Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Sunday accused Republicans of conducting political "fishing expeditions," while Republican lawmakers showed no let up in attacking President Barack Obama's administration for a culture of what they called cover-up and "intimidation."

With controversies on three fronts - the Internal Revenue Service, the administration's explanation of last year's Benghazi attack and the Justice Department's seizure of the Associated Press' phone records - White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer pushed back against suggestions that Obama was under a cloud of scandal.

"I think we've seen this playbook from Republicans before," Pfeiffer said on NBC's "Meet The Press."

"What they want to do when they are lacking a positive agenda is try to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped-up hearings and false allegations. We're not going to let that happen."

Republicans are pressing for investigations and congressional hearings and have kept up a stream of criticism of the White House over the three issues, forcing the administration to repeatedly defend its actions.

For the time-being, Obama appears to be weathering the storm. A CNN/ORC International poll released on Sunday showed 53 percent of Americans approve of the way Obama is doing his job, with 45 percent saying they disapprove.

More than six in 10 respondents said the president's statements about the IRS scandal are completely or mostly true, with 35 percent disagreeing. On the handling of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya last September, only 42 percent of respondents were satisfied, according to the telephone survey of 923 adults conducted on Friday and Saturday.

The White House has repeatedly expressed outrage about the conduct of the IRS in focusing on conservative political groups for additional scrutiny and Obama has said he first learned about it this month. Still, that has not dampened Republican criticism.

"There is a culture of intimidation throughout the administration. The IRS is just the most recent example," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on "Meet The Press."

Republican lawmakers said they still do not know who was responsible for the tax authority's targeting of conservative groups and want further investigation. The Senate Finance Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold hearings on it this week.

Senator Rob Portman, a Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" that a special counsel may be needed to investigate "because it has to be independent of the White House."

Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was fired last week and Obama has pledged new checks and safeguards to prevent anything similar from happening again.

"Given the trend line we're seeing here in so many different instances, it's an unfortunate culture I think in the administration that it's OK to cover these things up," Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

Pfeiffer acknowledged it was important to try to repair the damage caused by the IRS scandal.

"This was a breach of the public trust. And we have to work together to rebuild that trust. That's going to require Republicans to do this in a legitimate, serious governmental way and not play politics with it," he said on NBC.

Republicans are also aiming criticism at Sarah Hall Ingram, the official who previously ran the IRS' tax-exempt division during the time that an audit by the Treasury's inspector general said the targeting of conservative groups began. Since December 2010, Ingram has headed the IRS division handling the implementation of the Obama administration's healthcare reform.

The White House said it was important to wait until the facts were determined.

"This individual was not named in the inspector general's report. No one has suggested she's done anything wrong yet," Pfeiffer said on "Fox News Sunday."

"Before everyone in this town convicts this person in a court of public opinion with no evidence, let's actually get the facts and make decisions after that."

Bob Woodward, who investigated the Watergate scandal as a reporter at the Washington Post during Richard Nixon's presidency, said likening that to the current furors was not accurate.

"People are making comparisons to Watergate. This is not Watergate. But there are some people in the administration who have acted as if they want to be Nixonian," he said on NBC.

(Additional reporting by Paul Simao; editing by Christopher Wilson)


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