By Mike Lillis and Bernie Becker - 03/06/14 07:04 PM EST
House Republicans were thrust onto the defensive Thursday as Democrats waged a multi-pronged attack against Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and his aggressive leadership style atop the House Oversight Committee.
Issa came under attack for killing the microphone on Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel's senior Democrat, at the end of a heated hearing on political targeting at the Internal Revenue Service.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of House leadership, said Issa could have handled Wednesday’s hearing better, and suggested Republicans were frustrated that Issa had become the story, in lieu of the IRS.
“I think if you talked to the chairman, he would tell you he would handle it differently,” said Lankford, a member of the Oversight panel who’s running for the Senate this year.
Issa, who had defended his conduct, declined to address the issue in the Capitol on Thursday, rushing onto the House floor without a glance at the pack of reporters gathered at the chamber door.
GOP leaders have hoped to use their IRS probe as a bludgeon against President Obama and the Democrats in an extension of their campaign message that the administration abuses its authority for political ends.
But the silencing of Cummings turned the tables — at least temporarily — on Issa, one of the White House’s biggest critics.
Some Republicans, while not criticizing Issa outright, said his aggressive style sets him apart from other committee chief on Capitol Hill.
"Every chairperson has their own way of working with the minority," Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said Thursday. "Clearly, Darrell has his own unique style."
A senior GOP lawmaker said Issa’s conduct at the hearing demonstrated why he’s not among the most "beloved" of House chairmen.
"You can be firm without being nasty, you can be effective without being snide — this is Darrell's personality. He is not the guy that you'd move next door to," the member said in an interview.
Still other Republicans, while reluctant to endorse Issa's methods, said the real scandal is the lack of attention on Lerner’s refusal to testify.
“[It's] a bit of a show to take away from the underlying and important issue of the desire and need for Lois Lerner to testify about what she knew and when she knew it,” Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), another Oversight member, said of the Issa/Cummings spat.
GOP leaders were showered with questions about the Oversight chairman's behavior on Thursday, and even some Republicans questioned the appropriateness of his assertive actions in the hearing room.
Democrats highlighted the episode with practically every tool available to them.
The Democratic members of the Oversight Committee called on Issa to apologize to Cummings; the head of the Congressional Black Caucus penned a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asking him to remove Issa's gavel; a handful of senior Democrats staged a press briefing to denounce Issa's "egregious violation of the House rules;" and the Democratic leaders forced a floor vote Thursday on a resolution condemning "the offensive and disrespectful manner in which Chairman Darrell E. Issa conducted the hearing."
"What happened was so outrageous, so demeaning, so un-judicial, so awful in every respect, that we just absolutely have reached a boiling point," Rep. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the House Rules Committee, said Thursday.
The Democrats' resolution failed 211-186, on a strict partisan vote. But the issue served as distraction for Republican leaders, who had wanted to highlight other votes from the day, including a measure to block EPA regulations.
"From what I understand, I think Mr. Issa was within his rights to adjourn the hearing when he did," Boehner said, responding to a string of questions from reporters in the Capitol. “Darrell Issa is the chairman. He’s done an effective job as chairman. I support him."
Wednesday's Oversight hearing was the latest effort by Issa and GOP investigators to examine whether the IRS targeted groups and individuals for extra scrutiny based on their political beliefs. Testifying before the panel was Lois Lerner, a former IRS official at the center of the controversy, who invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
After Issa was unsuccessful at getting answers from Lerner, he quickly adjourned the hearing, eliciting an outcry from Cummings, who was attempting to make remarks of his own.
The protest prompted Issa to cut off Cummings’s microphone as Republicans hurried out of the hearing room.
Issa defended his conduct Wednesday, accusing Cummings of “slandering” him with criticism and suggesting the Democrats should apologize for Cummings's "inappropriate" behavior.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said that, in the end, the dustup would have little impact on the broader IRS investigation.
"This is Congress," Jordan said. "People fight all the time."