Senate Republicans Thursday called on the Justice Department to investigate whether the Obama White House offered Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania a high-ranking job in the administration if he would drop out of the 2010 Democratic Senate primary race – if true, a felony.
It’s not unusual for national political leaders to try to clear the primary field to protect an incumbent, in this case freshly minted Democrat and five-term Sen. Arlen Specter. What’s rare is for anyone to discuss the alleged offer as openly as Congressman Sestak did in a Feb. 18 interview on Comcast network news, which then migrated to other news sources.
“The allegations in this matter are very serious and, if true, suggest a violation of various criminal laws intended to safeguard our political process from the taint of bribes and political machine manipulation,” said Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee in a Wednesday letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Those who signed the letter include Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
(The eighth Republican seat on the panel had been Senator Specter, whose defection to the Democratic Party on April 28, 2009, gave the Democratic caucus a then-filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats. President Obama told Specter at the time: “You have my full support, and we’re thrilled to have you.”)
The White House has not denied that conversations between Sestak and White House officials took place, but press secretary Robert Gibbs said on March 16 that whatever conversations took place “were not problematic.”
Asked to provide more detail, he told CBS's “Face the Nation” on May 22 that “people who have looked into it assure me the conversations were not inappropriate in any way.” Interviewed later on the same program, Sestak, who won the primary, confirmed that his account stands but that he would provide no further details.
Conservative bloggers and Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California kept the issue boiling for weeks before Senate Republicans took a stand.
“The press hated Richard Nixon and had a love affair with Barack Obama during the campaign. I’m keeping the story alive to give the press another chance to ask the right questions and for the White House and Joe Sestak to take advantage of the opportunity to answer them,” said Congressman Issa, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“There is a growing chorus of both Democrats and Republicans who are keeping this story alive because they want to know who offered Joe Sestak what and when,” Issa said. “You would think that even President Obama will come to realize that this is not the issue he wants people to be talking about as a week that really should have been a victory-lap for Joe Sestak has turned into a controversy gone viral that has over-run their messaging.”
In an April 21 letter, Issa called on the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Sestak allegations.
In a response on May 21, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote that the Justice Department “has a long history of handling investigations of high level officials professionally and independently, without the need to appoint a special counsel.” Justice Department spokesmen say that “the Department doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of investigations,” so can’t comment on whether in fact a probe is under way.
So far, the controversy has made little dent in public opinion polls in Pennsylvania, where Sestak faces former Rep. Pat Toomey in November elections.
“I don’t see a lot of average Pennsylvanians talking about this,” says pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. “At the moment, it’s a Washington-based controversy.”