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WASHINGTON – Republican strategy for the fall elections seemed set: hammer Democrats on the health care law and "jobs, jobs, jobs."
As Democrats show increasing confidence on those fronts, however, House Republicans are gambling that ramping up new inquiries into old controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service and Libya will energize conservative voters without turning off moderates.
Over Democrats' heated objections, House Republicans voted this month to hold an IRS official in contempt for refusing to testify. They also launched a new investigation into the September 2012 terrorist attack on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Democrats say the moves reek of political opportunism and desperation.
Criticizing the president's health care law "has run its course," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and Republicans "have to find something else to talk about." She called the new Benghazi inquiry a "political stunt."
Republicans say their actions are serious and justified, even if they also might be good politics.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the select committee on Benghazi will not be partisan or involve political "sideshows." But he declined to tell Republicans to stop using the Benghazi tragedy to raise campaign money.
Republicans acknowledge the hearings could backfire if their select committee members appear overly zealous.
"There's a real burden on us," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "We need to not overreach" and simply "figure out what the truth is." He predicted the select committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., will "lean over backward to be fair."
Democrats spend little time defending the Obama administration's role in Benghazi or the IRS' actions in scrutinizing conservative groups that sought tax-exempt status. Instead, they cite the multiple hearings and inquiries already conducted into the matters, which were fading from national headlines except on outlets such as Fox News.
An inspector general's report blamed poor management in an IRS office that gave special scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. But it found no evidence of political conspiracy.
The division's director, Lois Lerner, infuriated Republicans a year ago by proclaiming her innocence at a House Oversight Committee hearing and then declining to answer questions, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination. In a mostly party-line vote, the House voted May 7 to hold Lerner in contempt. It wants a U.S. attorney to take steps to force her to testify.
As for Benghazi, at least half a dozen inquiries have probed the terrorist assault of Sept. 11, 2012, generating more than 25,000 pages of documents. Main questions include: Did the Obama administration do enough to get military relief to those under attack? And did it try to mislead Americans about the attack's origins to protect President Barack Obama's record on terrorism with two months left in his re-election campaign?
Opinions mostly fall along partisan lines, although some Republicans express more outrage than others. House Armed Services Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said the military did what it reasonably could.
The attack's origins were murky at first. At the time, Egyptians were rioting over an amateur American-made video mocking Islam's prophet Mohammad.
Then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice cited Islamic outrage over the video when she appeared on talk shows the Sunday after the Benghazi attack. Administration officials later said the assault was a calculated terrorist action, not a direct response to the video.
House Republicans have seized on a recently divulged White House "talking points" memo written to help Rice prepare for her TV appearances. The memo said one goal was "to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video and not a broader failure of policy" by the administration.
Republicans say the White House deliberately hid the memo from investigators.
Many Democrats say congressional Republicans want to injure Hillary Rodham Clinton, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, who was secretary of state during the Benghazi tragedy.
Several GOP political strategists said revived inquiries into Benghazi and the IRS will probably do their party more good than harm, provided their lawmakers appear more professional than partisan.
Undecided voters might not get excited about GOP accusations regarding the IRS and Benghazi, said Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant who teaches political science at the University of Southern California. But given the administration's questionable behavior in both areas, he said, "They certainly don't line up on the other side."
GOP strategist Terry Holt agrees. The Benghazi assault, he said, was "the phone call Hillary Clinton warned us about in 2008 when she was running against Obama. They both blew it."
Democrats are banking on public revulsion.
"To make use politically and financially of the tragedy of the loss of four great Americans is beneath contempt," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.
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