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First Thoughts: And the venting begins

IRS scandal takes center stage on Capitol Hill. What new comes out? … The White House is in damage-control mode – how they’re managing the three controversies … GOP tries to tie IRS to health care … Obama needs to fix IRS because credibility of government and his second-term agenda is at stake … From New York to L.A., two mayor’s races will be a focus next week – one because another scandal-ridden ex-congressman tries to make a comeback. … Bloomberg group goes after AZ Sen. Flake (R).

Charles Dharapak / AP

Ousted IRS chief Steve Miller arrives on Capitol Hill, Friday, May 17, 2013, to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) practice of targeting applicants for tax-exempt status based on political leanings.

*** And the venting begins: One thing is fairly certain: there will be fireworks today on Capitol Hill when ex-IRS Commissioner Steve Miller and Treasury Inspector General Russell George testify before the House Ways and Means Committee beginning at 9:00 am ET. But the question is what new information comes from the hearing? There will be plenty of bloviating, but it could also clarify what we don’t know, like: (1) The missing why? Was there political motivation on any level, and (2) What took so long for this to come out? Was this really simply a sloppy shortcut? It was clear in timeline that this was all discovered to be a problem early in 2012 and perhaps as far back as 2011, so what took so long for the IRS to admit it? Expect these to be among the most intriguing questions that get asked but dodged. And, of course, this is only the beginning of what’s going to be a busy season of IRS hearings.

*** The White House reboot: Damage-control mode continues for the White House. Today, it’s trying to stay the course and make that pivot back to jobs with another leg of the president’s Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour. Today, the president heads to Baltimore, where he stops by an elementary school at 11:35 am ET, then makes remarks at 1:20 pm ET at Ellicott Dredges. At 2:15 pm ET, he’ll head to a community center that works with families on job training. They’ve been trying to make this pivot for a while. The first event last week in Austin was overshadowed by the Benghazi hearing. Today, it’ll be overshadowed by the IRS hearing. After sitting on its hands for a few days, the White House is now in overdrive when it comes to damage control. Not just announcing new actions on IRS and on diplomatic security, but it was hard to watch TV after 3 p.m. yesterday and not see a key White House political aide on the tube: Carney, Palmieri and Pfeiffer all blitzing the airwaves.

*** How the White House is trying to fix the three fronts: On Benghazi, the White House is pushing that it’s all political and the president will talk about security at embassies. That was the point he attempted to drive home yesterday. Of course, his pronouncement regarding diplomatic security begs the question, where was this response last week, last month, last year. Clearly, the White House wants to put the issue of funding diplomatic security (something that’s been cut) back in Congress lap. It was a fairly transparent rhetorical move by the White House yesterday. On the IRS, they’re trying to show they’re on top of it…now. Naming Daniel Werfel is putting someone there who seems to have a non-partisan resume. He worked for George W. Bush, for example. But he’s no household name. Werfel’s appointment won’t have the impact on the public psyche that a more high-profile nominee would have had. But he checks the boxes of competency, bipartisanship, and he can vet. On the AP, it’s striking how much Obama went out of his way to stand by Attorney General Eric Holder. There’s no wiggle room there, and it’s because the Holder issue has been personal to him. The president has always felt that Holder’s unpopularity on the hill was a proxy for the president himself. The president believes Republicans on the hill have used Holder as a punching bag, believing they can attack Holder in ways they can’t with Obama. That’s why Obama’s been more sympathetic to Holder -- even though many White House aides, past and present, believe Holder’s been very politically naïve in how he’s run the Justice Department and has made himself an easy target.

*** GOP tries to tie IRS scandal to health care: It’s been a tough week for the White House, perhaps the worst of Obama’s second term. And we know exactly where GOP’s headed to try and advance the story more broadly. They’re headed to health care. Two IRS officials are already exiting the IRS, and now a third person has become a target. NBC’s Lisa Myers confirms this story that Sarah Hall Ingram, who was in charge of the tax exempt office from 2009 to 2012, is now in charge of the IRS’s Affordable Care Act office. The blaring headline Republicans want out of this is the person involved in targeting the Tea Party at the IRS is now in charge of running health care (!!!). That’s not exactly the case, however, as the IRS has a relatively small role in implementing health care as compared to Health and Human Services, which is the agency setting up the exchanges to be rolled out this fall. But why let an inconvenient reality get in the way of a good political talking point.

*** Bigger picture – the IRS scandal is important because it’s all about the credibility of government: At the heart of this IRS scandal and why it matters is how important the credibility of government is to Obama second-term agenda. Democrats want to show government run correctly can make your life better; Republicans want to say government stands in the way. The IRS scandal cuts right to that argument and extends out to health care (as noted above) and immigration. The IRS, on a good day, isn’t well liked by the public. It’s feared. But if it’s proven to be inept or corrupt, it will only harm the public trust even more than Washington’s done for so long as it is. And it’ll be easy to sell a swing voter on the idea that while, say, immigration reform is a good idea, do you have confidence Washington can make it work? Ditto with health care? That’s why it is so important for Obama to be on top of the IRS from here on out and restore credibility to the agency. Whatever comes out on IRS, with reporters turning up every stone and Republicans picking at every piece of carcass, the White House and Treasury better be first or it will undermine even further credibility.

*** New York to L.A.: Two mayors races in the two biggest cities in the country will be big next week – one because there will be a result (in L.A.) and second because of Anthony Weiner. In Los Angeles, voters head to the polls Tuesday to pick between two Democrats to be the next mayor – Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel. Garcetti continues to be the slight favorite and Greuel appears to be running out of money. She had to loan herself $100,000. Meanwhile, Weiner might jump into the mayor’s race next week. WNBC reported spotting Weiner shooting a campaign-style video at his childhood home in Brooklyn. And Weiner’s entry will transform the race into a circus, at least next week, and who knows, maybe for the rest of the campaign. By the way, with Weiner’s wife as close to Hillary Clinton as anyone, how do the Clintons keep their distance from Weiner, or do they? Either way, nobody benefits more from Weiner’s entry than the headline writers at the Daily News and the Post.

*** Bloomberg gun group targets AZ senator: Mayors Against Illegal Guns is going up with an ad campaign hitting Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (R), NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports. It features an Arizona couple, whose son was killed in the Aurora, CO, theatre shooting, who say Flake didn’t keep his word to them that he would vote in favor of tougher background checks. Republicans, though, believe that by voting for the Lindsey Graham (R-SC) alternative bill, they did vote for some background-check strengthening. The group has gone up against New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and has also pledged – though notably they have not yet -- to go up against Democrats in Alaska, Arkansas, and North Dakota, despite Democrats urging them not to.

*** 2016 roundup – Going after Hillary: Republicans tried to pin Benghazi on Hillary Clinton (here, for example). Democrats see 2016 politics at play. Opponents are readying a scandal-filled movie about her life. She still leads by a lot in a New Hampshire poll. … Vice President Joe Biden appears to be continuing preparations for a run in 2016, but he not only trails Clinton by a lot in early polling, he also remains a punch line for late-night comics. … Rand Paul heads to New Hampshire Monday … Bobby Jindal was in New Hampshire over the weekend …  Marco Rubio accused the White House of creating a “culture of intimidation” on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, yet some conservatives are still hammering him for his pursuit of comprehensive immigration. … Chris Christie was showing Prince Harry around the Jersey Shore. He also went negative despite huge leads in his bid for reelection this year. … Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed one of the toughest gun laws in the country.

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