Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said Friday that the Obama administration needs to make a "clean break" by quickly identifying all who were responsible for the IRS's targeting of conservative groups and spelling out a plan to ensure it does not happen again.
"It's an insult to everyone when you see an agency do what it did, especially the IRS," Casey said in a meeting with Inquirer reporters and editors.
In a wide-ranging interview, the Democrat also argued for greater funding for the National Institutes of Health as a source of jobs and research in the city and state, said the United States must do more to end Syria's civil war, and predicted that efforts to pass tougher gun laws would rebound after the 2014 midterm elections thanks to what he called a changed political landscape on guns.
Casey said he had written to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who oversees the IRS, urging the administration to say what it had done on a "short timeline." If the right steps are taken, the two-term senator said, "over time they can restore confidence. But it is going to be a long way back. A lot of it will be intangible and how the president leads on this. He was forceful the other day in taking steps, but he's got to do that every day, be very clear he will rectify this."
Republicans have likened Obama to another president accused of using the IRS against his political foes - Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace in 1974. Asked if the latest revelations were Nixonian, Casey said he hesitated to make such comparisons.
Then he said: "In both instances, the question is, 'What is the level of leadership involvement, and how high does it go?' Maybe this is beyond the IRS. We don't know that yet. But the only way they can put the ship on the right course is to take these actions. How they implement reforms is important."
Casey said Congress can create jobs by putting more research money into the NIH, which sent $1.4 billion to Pennsylvania in fiscal year 2012. That leads to jobs in life-sciences industries, but those industries - and their revenue from government insurance plans - are part of the health-care reform debate. Casey said he gets an earful from business owners concerned about many uncertainties, health-care law implementation among them.
"Health care is ultimately the fiscal issue," said Casey, who voted for the law known as Obamacare. "Getting it right is going to be hard, but essential."
Few in the Senate are more qualified than Casey to describe the evolution of gun politics. An upstate Democrat who long opposed gun controls, he changed his stance in December after the Newtown, Conn., shootings and called for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, saying he and his wife and daughters had been deeply moved by TV images from Newtown. Asked Friday how constituents reacted to his switch, he said it had prompted "commendation and condemnation."
Casey said he was glad to see that Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) had reiterated support Thursday for the bipartisan bill, defeated in April in the Senate, to expand background checks on gun sales. He described "quiet and determined" efforts to line up more support for such bills, and predicted efforts would pick up steam after the 2014 elections.
He said those congressional races might be the first with campaign money flowing to candidates for favoring tighter gun laws, instead of money only coming from the other side of the issue.
"That is a dynamic we've never had before," Casey said, "and that will change the debate."
A member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he said the United States must send more humanitarian aid to rebels while retaining military options in the hope of toppling Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Asked why greater involvement was in U.S interests, Casey said: "The downfall of Assad is bad for the Iranian regime, bad for Hezbollah. . . . I'm talking about direct threats to us. Both of them [Iran and Hezbollah], along with al-Qaeda, are plotting terrorist attacks every day against us. You can't get more direct than that."