President Obama's agenda marches on despite controversies

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 18 2013 4:24 p.m. MDT

House Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, left, waves a constituent's application to the IRS that was delayed, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, May 17, 2013, during the committee's hearing on the extra scrutiny the Internal Revenue Service gave Tea Party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. From left are, Tiberi, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Despite Democratic fears, predictions of the demise of President Barack Obama's agenda appear exaggerated after a week of cascading controversies, political triage by the administration and party leaders in Congress and lack of evidence to date of wrongdoing close to the Oval Office.

"Absolutely not," Steven Miller, the recently resigned acting head of the Internal Revenue Service, responded Friday when asked if he had any contact with the White House about targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for special treatment.

"The president's re-election campaign?" persisted Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

"No," said Miller.

The hearing took place at the end of a week in which Republicans repeatedly assailed Obama and were attacked by Democrats in turn — yet sweeping immigration legislation advanced methodically toward bipartisan approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure "has strong support of its own in the Senate," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a member of the panel.

Across the Capitol, a bipartisan House group reported agreement in principle toward a compromise on the issue, which looms as Obama's best chance for a signature second-term domestic achievement. "I continue to believe that the House needs to deal with this," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is not directly involved in the talks.

The president's nominee to become energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, won Senate confirmation, 97-0. And there were signs that Republicans might allow confirmation of Sri Srinivasan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, sometimes a stepping stone to the Supreme Court.

Separately, a House committee approved legislation to prevent a spike in interest rates on student loans on July 1. It moves in the direction of a White House-backed proposal for future rate changes to be based on private markets.

Even so, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said, "It's been a bad week for the administration."

Several Democratic lawmakers and aides agreed and expressed concern about the impact on Obama's agenda — even though much of it has been stymied by Republicans for months already.

At the same time, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., voiced optimism that the IRS controversy would boost the push for an overhaul of the tax code, rather than derail it. "It may make a case for a simpler tax code, where the IRS has less discretion," he said.

Long-term budget issues, the main flash point of divided government since 2011, have receded as projected deficits fall in the wake of an improving economy and recently enacted spending cuts and tax increases.

Even before Obama began grappling with the IRS, the fallout from last year's deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and from the Justice Department's secret seizure of Associated Press phone records, the two parties were at odds over steps to replace $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts. In particular, Obama's call for higher taxes is a nonstarter with Republicans.

Other high-profile legislation and presidential appointees face difficulties that predate the current controversies.

Months ago, Obama scaled back requested gun safety legislation to center on expanded background checks for firearms purchasers. That was derailed in the Senate, has even less chance in the House and is unlikely to reach the president's desk.

Republicans oppose other recommendations from the president's State of the Union address, including automatic increases in the minimum wage, a pre-kindergarten program funded by higher cigarette taxes and more federal money for highways and bridge repair.

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