Thursday November 26th, 2015 6:19PM

GOP ponders how to capitalize on President Obama's woes

By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The scandals dogging President Barack Obama are a political gift to Republicans, who could use some good luck after recent election losses. It's not clear, however, how Republicans can best capitalize on Democrats' woes, legislatively or politically.

Last November's election dynamics complicate the picture on both fronts. Republican leaders are urging a bit of restraint in exploiting the White House's new weaknesses.

Legislatively one of Obama's biggest second-term goals is to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, including a new pathway to citizenship for millions of people living here illegally. Many Republicans would like to deny him such a legacy-enhancing prize.

But GOP strategists say their party may need "immigration reform" more than Democrats do.

Hispanic voters overwhelmingly backed Obama in both his elections. The troubling trend for Republicans might worsen if they don't show greater interest in Latinos' concerns. For many, that includes major changes to immigration laws.

"There's a political concern that we need to heal our rift with the Hispanic community," said Kirby Wilbur, the Republican Party chairman in Washington state. He said, however, he's not sure it's necessary to offer citizenship for people who came here illegally.

That's precisely the kind of view that makes immigration difficult for Republicans.

On other political fronts, the White House's scandal problems offer a fat, easy target. Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday ripped into the ousted head of the Internal Revenue Service. He apologized for the agency's heightened scrutiny of tea party affiliates and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Republicans have been equally indignant in ongoing inquiries into the administration's role in last September's terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four U.S. officials.

The third controversy now dogging the White House - the Justice Department's secret seizure of Associated Press phone records in a security leak investigation - has thus far stirred less emotion and partisanship on Capitol Hill.

Taken together, Republicans say, these three controversies portray a rapaciously political and inept administration. That could be a powerful message in next year's congressional and gubernatorial elections, and perhaps in the 2016 presidential race.

"I think people are beginning to think, `Is anybody running the government up there?'" said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner. "Incompetence, detachment, lack of oversight. I think the damage is going to be real and lasting for the president."

Cole, however, said Boehner and other party leaders are keenly aware that Republicans can overdo their attacks, and even build sympathy for Obama, if their criticisms appear nakedly political or not supported by facts.

"We've actually had a lot of discussions about that," Cole said.

Republican leaders wince when their more zealous colleagues talk of impeaching Obama. Cole said the House committee inquiries are being led by level-headed, fact-seeking Republican chairmen. "You're not going to find ham-handed stunts, politics and shout-outs" from them, he said.

Tea party groups - whose influence in 2012 waned compared to their muscular role in 2010 - are finding new political fuel, especially in the IRS scandal that largely centers on such conservative groups. They're flooding electronic and postal mail boxes with fiery fundraising letters and renewed calls to arms.

Democrats hope these grassroots groups overplay their hands. Even if tea party activists boost GOP turnout in next year's nonpresidential elections, they could complicate the Republican Party's need to woo a wider audience to win presidential elections in 2016 and beyond. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

A Quinnipiac University poll this spring found that 24 percent of Americans view the tea party movement favorably, and 43 percent view it unfavorably.

Democrats love to remind Republicans of their partisan excess in 1998, when the House's impeachment of President Bill Clinton struck millions of Americans as political overkill. Republicans lost House seats that year, costing Speaker Newt Gingrich his leadership post. The Senate acquitted the president.

"GOP Overreach: 2014 could look a lot like 1998," said a statement Friday from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Republicans, it claimed, "are foaming at the mouth over Benghazi, AP and the IRS."

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said he hopes the scandals will increase public attention on Congress, enabling Republicans to highlight an agenda he thinks voters will embrace.

"The scandals, they're not your ticket to the dance," said Kingston, who is running for the Senate in a crowded GOP field. "They are a reason to have people look at your party. And then, if you have good private-sector job ideas, and balancing the budget, then I think people will vote for you."

The scandals, titillating as they are inside Washington, may have surprisingly little impact on Congress' actual achievements. Boehner, asked Thursday how the GOP's apparent momentum might influence legislation, said: "I don't expect that it will."

Congress' partisan gridlock is so powerful that it's hard for new scandals, or anything else, to influence productivity one way or the other. Some of Congress' biggest actions lately - including the January "fiscal cliff" tax increase, and the March "sequestration" budget cuts - began as mutually unacceptable threats, designed to spur Democrats and Republicans to agree to better alternatives. They never did.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday that the new batch of controversies will hardly affect what she calls a do-nothing Congress.

"The last two years," Pelosi said, "there was nothing that went through this Congress, and there was no AP, IRS, or any other initialed organizations that we were dealing with."
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