WASHINGTON – Contempt of Congress? Subpoenas? Stonewalling?
Maybe there's a smoking gun in the Republican-led investigations of the Obama administration — and President Barack Obama's pushback. But a large part of them could be what always goes on during a presidential campaign: political gamesmanship.
It ranges from House GOP contempt threats against Attorney General Eric Holder to Obama's waving a to-do list in the face of lawmakers.
Within two weeks, Obama fired a new pair of volleys across the bow of the congressional GOP leadership.
The first was his decree — bypassing Congress — that the U.S. will not, in most cases, deport illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The other was his assertion of executive privilege to shield certain internal Justice Department documents from a House subpoena.
Both actions drew expressions of GOP outrage in Washington and on the campaign trail.
The documents involved a botched U.S. gun-trafficking operation that was designed to track firearms headed into Mexico but which led to the disappearance of thousands of weapons, two of which were found at the scene of the 2010 shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. The government has not ruled out the possibility that they were used in Terry's shooting.
House Speaker John Boehner said Terry's family deserved answers about the guns that killed him and went so far as to suggest a White House cover-up. Others specifically likened the actions of Obama and Holder to the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.
That may seem like a bit of a stretch, but in an election year outsized charges and countercharges tend to swirl.
Executive privilege has been claimed by presidents going back to George Washington to hide the inner workings of their administrations from congressional eyes.
As a senator, Obama sharply criticized President George W. Bush's invocation of executive privilege — a blast from the past Republicans were quick to exploit.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney's team leaped into the fray. "President Obama's pledge to run the most open and transparent administration in history has turned out to be just another broken promise," Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
Holder insisted he and his aides have spent countless hours cooperating with Congress and already have provided nearly 8,000 documents on the ill-fated operation.
Escalating tensions on Capitol Hill are likely to intensify as the Supreme Court rules later this week on Obama's health care law and lawmakers face June 30 deadlines on a crucial transportation reauthorization bill and a scheduled rise in student loan interest rates.
The pattern of investigations by Republican-led House panels recalls the many congressional probes during President Bill Clinton's administration.
They ranged from the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which led to an impeachment vote by the House, to probes of the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster, the Clinton's Whitewater property dealings in Arkansas, Hillary Rodham Clinton's investment gains, the workings of her health care task force and the mass firing of the White House travel office.
"There were 80 different investigations roughly between 1995 and 2001, and that doesn't include the later investigations of Clinton's 11th-hour pardons and gifts," said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University. He noted that some of the same committees that relentlessly investigated Clinton are now pursuing Obama.
Light called the gun-trafficking probe and the contempt of Congress threat against Holder "a highly partisan effort to create a big issue for the 2012 election to undermine Obama's credibility through this particularly flawed operation." But he also suggested that Obama's use of executive privilege "makes him look like he might be hiding something."
In any event, Light said such politically charged probes can "tarnish both the president and Congress."
It isn't only Republicans who investigate. When Bush sat in the Oval Office, congressional Democrats launched high-profile probes of the secret deliberations of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force and the Justice Department's 2006 midterm firing of nine U.S. attorneys.
The myriad investigations of the Clintons, however, transpired against a far different backdrop than now.
"In Clinton's time, the economy was relatively good and getting better. In Obama's time, it's relatively bad and getting worse," said Doug Schoen, who served as Clinton's pollster and who has criticized Obama's economic performance.
"The picture of intransigence coming out of Washington is not helpful to the president," Schoen said. And, borrowing a Watergate-era term, he added: "Stonewalling can't help Obama. I'm not sure it will hurt him, but it certainly can't help him."
The strictly party-line contempt recommendation came last week from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, even though its chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., later acknowledged that Congress has no evidence of a White House cover-up such as alleged by Boehner and several other GOP lawmakers.
Boehner said Wednesday the House will move forward with the contempt of Congress vote against Holder on Thursday, after last-minute talks with the White House failed to resolve the impasse.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, quoting Issa, on Monday told reporters, "The chairman said over the weekend that there was no evidence — let me repeat — no evidence of White House involvement in any cover-up or attempt to cover up this issue."
Holding an attorney general in contempt of Congress would be unprecedented. It also would probably be unenforceable since it is the Justice Department itself — headed by the attorney general — that must act on such recommendations.
"It's clear that this is nothing more than a political witch hunt to distract from the fact that Republicans in Congress have no interest in focusing on what we need to focus on, which is jobs and the economy," said Democratic Party chief Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
The gun-trafficking probe joins ongoing ones into the California solar-panel company Solyndra, which received a $528 million federal loan from the Obama administration before filing for bankruptcy protection and laying off 1,100 workers.
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