California Rep. Darrell Issa takes on role as Obama's chief antagonist

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; 6:12 PM

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the man who radically changed California politics by helping fund the 2003 recall effort that lead to the removal of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the election of fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, has become one of President Obama's chief antagonists.

From his perch as the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa has spent the last 15 months constantly blasting the Obama administration on nearly every controversy and calling for countless investigations that the Democratic-controlled committee refuses to order.

But Issa is finally starting to hit some of his targets. He was one of the leading Republicans in pushing the White House to reveal more details about its discussions to persuade Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) to forgo a Senate primary run against Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in return for a possible government job. Sestak won the primary, and now another Senate candidate challenging an incumbent Democrat, Andrew Romanoff in Colorado, has acknowledged having similar discussions with White House officials. Issa has suggested the White House violated the law and may have offered Sestak "a bribe" in the process, assertions that have not been proved.

He is also demanding the administration release details of Cabinet officials' travel to events that might benefit Democratic candidates, continuing to cast Obama as embracing "politics as usual."

"It is abundantly clear that this kind of conduct is contrary to President Obama's pledge to change 'business as usual' and that his administration has engaged in the kind of political shenanigans he once campaigned to end," he said.

"Shame on you for abusing your power," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) wrote in a letter to Issa last summer, accusing the Republican of overly aggressive tactics in his probe of whether some senators, including Conrad, had received overly generous mortgage deals from one of the country's largest lenders. The Senate ethics committee dropped the probe.

Issa appears to be styling himself after Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who led probes of the Clinton administration when he headed the committee, and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who led investigations when he ran the panel in the last two years of the Bush administration.

Unlike Burton and Waxman, however, Issa doesn't have power to subpoena documents without the backing of House Oversight Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y) or other Democrats on the panel. Instead, he sends letter after letter to agencies and top officials in the Obama administration requesting information. The missives are aimed not only at the officials, but at the media, as the letters are posted on Issa's Web site and full of bombast.

"These tactics have been characterized as a 'fist to the nose,' and a message to 'Back off,' " Issa said in a letter to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel last summer, after administration officials had told GOP governors that if they opposed last year's stimulus, they could simply return the money.

He added, "While this scare tactic may work in Chicago, it will not intimidate me or other members of the United States Congress."

The 56-year-old was elected to Congress in 2001 and is one of its wealthiest members, having earned his fortune from a car-alarm company he used to run. He helped fund the recall in California and then became a gubernatorial candidate in 2003. But after polls showed he had little chance of winning, Issa dropped out and endorsed Schwarzenegger.

He was little known in Congress until this year. But his committee role in opposing the Democratic administration has turned him into a minor conservative hero and frequent guest on FOX News.

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