In Congress, Legislation and Scandals Vie for Attention

For President Obama, how those competing priorities balance out could mean the difference between securing a landmark accomplishment — the first overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws since 1986 — or becoming consumed by charges of scandal.

Invigorated by the uproars, House Republicans are setting their sights more firmly this week on the I.R.S. and Mr. Obama’s embattled attorney general. After weeks of trying to leaven the House’s growing investigatory zeal with serious legislating, House leaders and committee chairmen appear to be giving themselves over to an expanding and aggressive oversight effort — on the I.R.S., the Justice Department’s targeting of reporters, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s statements to Congress on that targeting and the Sept. 11 attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya.

House leaders including Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio have acknowledged the risk if voters see the investigations as driven primarily by politics. But with the legislative season moving toward the routine task of passing spending bills, oversight appears to be the biggest splash that the House hopes to make.

The Senate, by contrast, plans to bring a sweeping immigration bill to the floor next Monday, with the goal of passage by July 4. The bill’s bipartisan advocates express increasing confidence that they will have more than the 60 votes they will need.

“These so-called scandals have not diverted us one iota,” Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Sunday on the NBC News program “Meet the Press.”

The White House plans to keep the president in the public eye, concentrating on kitchen-table issues like the economy and the carrying out of Mr. Obama’s health care law as well as on high-profile foreign-policy efforts. The hope, officials say, is to prevent Congress from seizing a public agenda that has largely been set by Mr. Obama this year.

Republican investigators over the weekend rolled out what they called more evidence of I.R.S. mismanagement, including new transcripts of interviews with unidentified lower-level employees suggesting that officials in Washington pushed to give conservative groups that were applying for tax-exempt status special scrutiny. A soon-to-be-released report by the Treasury Department’s inspector general will also take the I.R.S. to task for spending tens of millions of dollars on conferences over two years.

The reserved statements from lawmakers who over the past weeks withheld at least some judgment on the expanding probes seemed to give way Sunday to a much more accusatorial posture. Republicans pointed to new evidence that they said would extend the cloud of scandal into higher echelons of the Obama administration.

“As the last few weeks have demonstrated, Congressional oversight is not only a constitutional duty, but also a vitally important check and balance to the Obama administration,” Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, wrote in a memo to members. He added: “During June and the coming months, the House will continue to hold the administration accountable.”

Hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday will open new fronts against the I.R.S. After allowing conservative groups to sound off about being targeted by the agency, the committees will examine its spending on conferences and entertainment between 2010 and 2012.

During that span, the I.R.S. held at least 220 conferences, at a cost of $50 million, according to the audit by the Treasury inspector general, portions of which the oversight committee released.

The committee’s chairman, Representative Darrell Issa of California, let loose a volley of accusations on Sunday that seemed to end a brief period of restraint for him. He said Washington officials had known of the flagging of applicants for tax-exempt status but had covered it up during the presidential election and allowed groups that were “not a friend of the president to be disenfranchised through an election.”

“My gut tells me that too many people knew that this wrongdoing was going on before the election,” he said Sunday on the CNN program “State of the Union.”

Peter Baker contributed reporting.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/03/us/as-congress-returns-legislation-and-scandals-vie-for-attention.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

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