WASHINGTON — — A push by congressional Republicans on Friday to increase pressure on the Obama White House over the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, has put Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings back to his role as one of the administration's leading defenders.
Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, was among the first to respond to the GOP's decision to subpoena Secretary of State John Kerry. He described the move as "shockingly disrespectful" and accused GOP leaders of being "in disarray."
"These actions are not a responsible approach to congressional oversight," Cummings said. "They continue a trend of generating unnecessary conflict for the sake of publicity."
Pushing back has become a familiar task for the 63-year-old lawmaker, now entering his fourth year leading Democrats on the contentious oversight panel. Sometimes reserved and sometimes holding forth at the top of his lungs, Cummings has carved out a national profile as one of his party's top fighters.
He has battled with the Republican chairman of the committee, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, over Obamacare, the federal gun-walking scandal known as Fast and Furious and, recently, the controversy over the IRS targeting of conservative groups.
His already famously rocky relationship with Issa deteriorated further this spring when the Republican suggested Cummings might have helped bring one of the tea party groups to the attention of the IRS office tasked with deciding which organizations qualify for tax-exempt status.
Cummings denied doing so — and the imbroglio appears to have strengthened support for him within the party. But it also has increasingly made him a target of conservative Republicans.
"I wonder sometimes, when I'm talking to Issa, if there will come a day when he'll look back on his life and say, 'We could have made a difference,' " Cummings said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun before Friday's maneuverings on Benghazi. "There are times where I mourn what could have been with regard to this committee — things we could have done."
The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has a history of bare-knuckle politics that predates the leadership of Issa and Cummings, both of whom began in their roles in 2011. Former Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, used his chairmanship to aggressively pursue President Bill Clinton, whom he once referred to as a "scumbag."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the committee's Democratic chairman in 2007 and 2008, investigated the administration of President George W. Bush on its handling of the Iraq War and response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as in connection with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Republicans have accused Cummings of being an obstructionist. They note that he was chosen for the top job over more senior committee members in part because he was seen as more assertive and, in his own words, willing to go "toe to toe on everything."
"Unfortunately, [he] has been true to his rhetoric about 'going toe to toe' to obstruct oversight on behalf of the White House," Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said in a statement. "His tenure as ranking member has further eroded the American people's confidence that this president's party is capable of conducting necessary and constitutionally mandated oversight."
The committee has held four hearings on the attack in Benghazi, a city in eastern Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, nearly a year after the U.S.-backed ouster of Muammar Khadafi. Four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed.
Republicans have for years accused the White House of falsely blaming the attack on spontaneous protests against a crude anti-Islamic video produced in the United States.
It was revealed to have been an organized plot by dozens of gunmen believed to have been linked to al Qaida — but the GOP says the administration tried to suppress that conclusion because it contradicted President Barack Obama's assertion that the U.S. had the terror group "on the run" ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
The controversy expanded this week when a newly released email showed a White House aide had crafted talking points for Susan Rice, then the ambassador to the United Nations, in the days after the attack.
The White House has said Rice's comments were based on the intelligence available at the time.
Issa, expressing outrage that the State Department had not previously disclosed the email, said Friday its revelation represents a "disturbing disregard for the department's legal obligations to Congress." And he issued the subpoena, calling on Kerry to testify before the committee May 21.
Hours later, House Speaker John Boehner said he would create a select committee to investigate the issue — a decision that will draw still more attention to the controversy.
It's not yet clear whether Issa or Cummings will serve on the select committee.
Many Democrats were muted in their response to the subpoena, but Cummings reacted quickly. Within minutes, he issued a statement in which he recounted Issa's objections to a Democratic attempt in 2007 to subpoena then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over comments President George W. Bush had made about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein seeking uranium from Niger.
A transcript of a hearing from that time shows Issa noting Rice's busy schedule, including meetings with the Syrian foreign minister and NATO.
"The inappropriateness of hauling the secretary of state ... out of the performance of her job is what we're objecting to," he said.
Democrats have praised Cummings' work as ranking member on the oversight committee. Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat and prominent voice on the panel, said Issa had long signaled he would be a "trench warfare guy."
"Elijah had to be willing to go into hand-to-hand combat with Issa, and he has certainly shown he's quite capable of doing that while still calling on us to elevate the conversation," Connolly said.
"I think he's emerged from this combat with far greater stature," he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that Cummings is "admired for his courage, commitment to the truth and his compassion for all Americans."
But in early April, Issa released a series of emails from 2012 showing that IRS staff were attempting to respond to a request for information from Cummings' aides about the tea party-affiliated group True the Vote. Republicans suggested that Cummings, by making the request, had inappropriately pressured the IRS to single out the Houston-based group for scrutiny.
The IRS, and the question of whether it singled out conservative groups applying for nonprofit status, has been a subject of investigation by the committee for months.
Cummings, who has made no secret of his distaste for True the Vote, denied that his staff made any inappropriate requests. The emails show aides had requested "publicly available information." Other documents have revealed the agency was already looking into True the Vote months before Democratic staff made the request.
"We wanted to find … only public records — that's the only thing we've asked for, we would not have wanted anything else and that's the only thing we got — to see exactly what the deal was with … True the Vote," Cummings said.
True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht told Fox News in February that she filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics against Cummings for trying to intimidate her. A spokeswoman for the ethics office declined to comment.
"There's no jurisdiction of this committee into a private citizens group — it's just a complete abuse of power," said Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who represents the group. "It's just bullying."
Cummings, who was first elected to Congress in 1996, represents parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties. Before his time in Washington, he spent 13 years in the Maryland General Assembly.
David Leviss, who served as a staff member to the oversight committee under Democrats, said relations between its chairmen and its ranking members have always been contentious.
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But in the past, he said, the majority and the minority were able to work together on more issues — such as contracting fraud — which gave lawmakers and staff a chance to build trust. Much of that bipartisan spirit seems to have waned, Leviss said.
"I don't think the friction between Issa and Cummings is unique," said Leviss, who is now an attorney at O'Melveny & Myers. "What's different now is that there doesn't seem to be very much common ground."
Issa faces a term limit as committee chairman at the end of this year and several Republicans are jockeying for his seat. It's not yet clear whether Cummings will stay on as the top Democrat after this year's midterm elections.
But despite the bruising fights, Cummings says he'd like to.
"If they ask me to," he said, "I'll stay."