WASHINGTON – Republicans are getting fed up with what they call “fishing expeditions” and hearings to nowhere conducted by majority Democrats thriving in their newfound oversight authority.
Annoyed by ongoing inquiries into everything from the firing of eight U.S. attorneys to the Bush administration’s 2003 charges that Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium in Niger, Republicans inside and outside Congress say Democrats have gone overboard.
“We understand that the Congress has a role to play, which is oversight over the Executive Branch,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said during a recent press briefing. However, “I do think there is a difference between oversight and overreaching.”
Democratic supporters and government watchdogs, however, say the majority party is doing exactly what Congress should.
"That's a natural thing that the House, particularly, would start having hearings about what the Bush administration is doing now that the Democrats are in control and can issue subpoenas,” said former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, a FOX News contributor.
As part of its oversight responsibility, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have approved a flurry of subpoenas, including for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and White House senior adviser Karl Rove relating to the White House role in the firings of the eight prosecutors. The embattled Gonzales has testified several times before Congress on the issue, most recently in front of the House Judiciary Committee a week ago.
"The list of accusations has mushroomed, but the evidence of wrongdoing has not," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said at the most recent hearing. "If there are no fish in this lake, we should reel in our lines of questions, dock our empty boat and turn to more pressing issues."
The inquiry into whether the eight attorneys were fired as payback for their action or inaction on cases politically beneficial to Republicans isn’t the only game in town. Democrats are hot to explore the run up to the Iraq war and have subpoenaed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to defend the pre-war intelligence. So far, she has not obliged.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., which issued the Rice subpoena, has also held hearings waste, fraud and abuse by military contractors working on Iraq reconstruction projects as well as the alleged cover-up and mythmaking around the death of Cpl. Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and the kidnapping of Pvt. Jessica Lynch in Iraq.
The same committee also issued subpoenas in an investigation into whether the White House, through the head of the General Services Administration, pushed government employees to help elect Republicans in 2006.
Key Democrats say the Bush administration's ethics and abuses of power are among the worst in U.S. history.
“Not since the days of Watergate, when our judicial system and intelligence community were deployed by the White House in the service of partisan politics, have we seen so many abuses," Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., head of the House Democratic Caucus, told a recent audience at the Brookings Institution.
"I've got to tell you — Tammany Hall had nothing on team Bush," Emanuel said, referencing the Democrats' infamous 170-year hold on New York City politics through patronage jobs and influence over new immigrants.
But Republicans say the abuses in Washington come from Democrats exceeding their oversight authority.
“I think what they are doing is way over the top,” former Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., now the president of the fiscally-conservative Club for Growth, said of the investigation into the attorney firings.
“It’s not what we should be doing,” Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Republican National Committee Chairman Robert Duncan called the two subpoenas sent to his organization seeking e-mails by Rove and others part of a "fishing expedition."
"The Democrats on Capitol Hill have made it clear: they will stop at nothing short of the entire Republican National Committee playbook for 2008 in search of their documents," he said in a written statement after the subpoenas were approved.
But in a world of just desserts, Democrats may be feeling vindicated following 12 years of Republican rule in Congress. To compare, during the Clinton administration Republicans probed, among other issues, whether the White House inappropriately fired long-term personnel in its travel office; had been inappropriately “selling” access to White House coffees and overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom to campaign contributors; and had used the White House security chief to compile an “enemies list.”
GOP investigations also focused on whether then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt demanded campaign contributions from Native American tribes in exchange for policy influence; whether the White House had sought out illegal campaign contributions from foreign nationals; and of course, whether President Clinton did in fact have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. The last led to impeachment hearings in 1999.
"It is not unusual that when a new party takes control, particularly when the party is different from the party of the president, that there would be oversight hearings. That is exactly what the Republicans did in 1995 when they took over, when Clinton was president when they won the House. They started having hearings about what things the Clinton administration was doing," Frost said.
Former Rep. Bob Barr, who served as a Republican from Georgia but is now libertarian, said Democrats wouldn't have as much steam if the GOP had been responsible during the first six years of the Bush administration.
“The real thing to keep in perspective is that the Bush administration has been basically on a oversight holiday since it took over in 2001," Barr said. "The Congress under Republican control conducted absolutely no meaningful oversight. Any oversight investigations by the Democrats are going to seem like an awful lot, when it really isn’t."
After Emanuel decried the administration, Perino responded swiftly, questioning whether the Democratic investigations are hiding a lack of progress on other legislative items the party promised to pursue when it took over earlier this year.
“I think what we have going on here is that the 100-hour congressional agenda is faltering, and in that vacuum, that they’ve decided to fall back on a tried and true tactic of theirs, which is creating grand conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact,” said Perino.
But Democrats say Congress is doing all of its jobs.
"Congress has passed the budget resolution that is going to start the appropriations process very early this year, earlier than in the past. It would be unusual for Congress to enact a lot of legislation in the first few months, that is have it pass both houses and signed by the president. Congress, the House and the Senate passed minimum wage legislation that is being worked out in conference, and also you have the Iraq war hanging all over this," Frost said.
“The budgets are moving,” added Jennifer Porter Gore of the Project on Government Oversight, a private watchdog organization. “Let’s take a look at the last two budget authorizations cycles — not a lot of stellar activity there — and that was under a Republican Congress."
Nevertheless, veteran members of Congress like former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., who served from 1971 to 1991, and is now a government expert at the Brookings Institution, says Democrats may be “in a kind of an overboard condition right now.”
“The majority party is kind of going out of its way to harass the Bush administration. You saw a little bit of the shoe on the other foot during the Clinton impeachment hearings” but that doesn’t necessarily make it right, Frenzel said.
Republicans also need to do a better job countering the assault, Toomey said.
"They need to speak loudly when the Democrats go overboard with politically motivated" actions, Toomey said. Republicans did their job trying to oppose Democratic efforts at the committee level. "I think they need to do more in the public arena."
FOXNews.com's Sharon Kehnemui Liss contributed to this report.