President Barack Obama sought on Monday to neutralize two crises that threatened his second term agenda, calling the apparent targeting of conservative groups by tax officials "outrageous" and an uproar over his response to American deaths in Libya a "sideshow."
At a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama tried to put his stamp on the two issues, which are overshadowing other policy priorities just months after he took the oath of office.
The Benghazi, Libya, controversy has been simmering for months but flared up last week after internal emails were made public showing the administration trying to shape "talking points" to explain how four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in an attack there.
Obama rejected claims of a cover-up on information about the attacks and said the assertions were made with political motivations aimed at him and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
"The whole issue of this - of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow," he said.
The IRS issue arose on Friday when an official of the agency revealed at a meeting of tax lawyers that it had singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny of their claims for tax-exempt status.
"If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on, and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous," Obama told reporters at the White House, noting he first heard about the allegations on Friday himself.
"There's no place for it. And they have to be held fully accountable. Because the IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity, and people have to have confidence that they're applying ... the laws in a nonpartisan way," he said.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, promised an investigation by his panel, which would join probes that Republicans announced in the House of Representatives last Friday after news of the IRS action first became public.
"Targeting groups based on their political views is not only inappropriate but it is intolerable," Baucus said in a statement issued by his committee, which oversees the IRS.
Two other Democratic senators, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, seconded calls by Republicans for Obama to punish those responsible for the IRS targeting, which began in 2010 shortly after the emergence of the Tea Party movement that helped Republicans win the House that year.
"The administration should take swift action to get to the bottom of this to ensure those responsible for misconduct are held accountable," Kaine said.