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May 17, 2013

Obama acts, but Republicans unsatisfied

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, seeking to regain his footing amid controversies hammering the White House, named a temporary chief for the scandal-marred Internal Revenue Service Thursday and pressed Congress to approve new security money to prevent another Benghazi-style terrorist attack.

The efforts did little to satisfy Republicans, who see the controversies as an opportunity to derail Obama’s second-term agenda. House Speaker John Boehner suggested the White House had violated the public’s trust, and he promised to “stop at nothing” to hold the administration accountable.  

“Nothing dissolves the bonds between the people and their government like the arrogance of power here in Washington,” Boehner said. “And that’s what the American people are seeing today from the Obama administration — remarkable arrogance.”

The targeting of conservative political groups by the IRS and new questions about the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year — along with the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records — have consumed the White House for nearly a week. Of the three controversies, the president’s advisers see the IRS matter as the most likely to linger. At least three congressional committees are planning investigations into the agency that touches the lives of nearly every American.

Obama, who was criticized by both opponents and allies for his measured initial response to the IRS targeting, vowed to ensure the agency acts “scrupulously and without even a hint of bias.”

“I think we’re going to be able to fix it,” he declared during a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Soon afterward, Obama appointed senior budget official Danny Werfel to temporarily run the IRS, one day after Acting Commissioner Steven Miller’s forced resignation. The White House is expected to nominate a permanent commissioner later this year.

However, the president knocked down the prospect of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS, saying the congressional investigations and a separate Justice Department probe should be enough to nail down who was responsible for improperly targeting tea party groups when they applied for tax-exempt status.

Obama and Erdogan were questioned during a light but steady rain during Thursday’s outdoor event. As the rain picked up, the president summoned a pair of Marine guards to provide umbrellas for Erdogan and himself, joking, “I’ve got a change of suits, but I don’t know about our prime minister.”

The news conference marked Obama’s first comments on the government’s widely criticized seizure of telephone records of reporters and editors of The Associated Press in an investigation of news leaks. The president spoke of the importance of striking a balance between “secrecy and the right to know” but said he would make no apologies for trying to protect classified information that could put Americans at risk.

“I’ve still got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, and I’ve still got a whole bunch of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations,” he said. “Part of my job is to make sure that we’re protecting what they do, while still accommodating for the need for information.”

The president said he continues to have confidence in Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been the target of intense criticism from lawmakers after the phone record subpoenas were made public.  

The IRS and Justice Department controversies have coincided with a revival in the GOP-led investigations into the September attacks in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.

Obama, who angrily cast the investigations as a “sideshow” earlier this week, tried to turn the focus Thursday to Congress. He urged lawmakers to provide more money to strengthen security at U.S. diplomatic missions around the world.

“We need to come together and truly honor the sacrifice of those four courageous Americans and better secure our diplomatic posts around the world,” Obama said. “That’s how we learn the lessons of Benghazi. That’s how we keep faith with the men and women who we send overseas to represent America.”

The State Department is seeking about $1.4 billion for increased security; the money would come primarily from funds that haven’t been spent in Iraq. It would include $553 million for 35 more Marine Security Guard units, $130 million for 155 diplomatic security agents and $376 million for security upgrades and construction at new embassies.

Since the attack, Democrats have complained that Republicans cut $300 million from the Obama administration’s budget request of $2.6 billion for diplomatic and embassy security in 2012.

Congressional Republicans held new hearings on the Benghazi attacks last week, and a congressional official also released details of emails that GOP lawmakers said suggested an administration effort to downplay the prospect of terrorism in the election year attacks. The White House, which has long disputed allegations of a cover-up, released 100 pages of documents Wednesday in an effort to put an end to protracted controversy.

However, the release of the emails didn’t quiet the GOP furor on Capitol Hill, and investigations continued to move ahead. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that while he applauded the release of “hand-picked emails,” the White House should release all the unclassified emails.

“I want all the documents released,” said Chaffetz, who also made clear that the committee wanted to talk to more current and former administration officials.

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Associated Press writers David Espo and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

 

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