11:05 PM PDT on Monday, October 11, 2010

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – To hear leading Democrats tell it, few things are scarier this Halloween than the prospect of Rep. Darrell Issa, armed with a gavel.

As Democrats fight to hang onto control of the House of Representatives, party leaders and officials are painting the Inland congressman as a GOP bogeyman, ready to pounce on the White House if Republicans win a majority of seats in the chamber on Nov. 2.

Issa in the past two years has used his position as top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to scrutinize and criticize the Obama administration on an array of topics, ranging from the president’s economic stimulus efforts to the federal government’s response to the Gulf oil leak.

If Republicans can pick up the 39 seats they need to win a majority in the House, Issa would be chairman of the committee. With the gavel comes subpoena power that would give Issa authority to demand testimony and documents from the administration.

Issa, who has become known for his aggressive, sometimes confrontational style, vowed that he would approach the position with a commitment to bipartisanship and cooperation. But the mere idea of a Chairman Darrell Issa has prompted his rivals from across the aisle to issue repeated warnings to voters in recent months.

In a June fundraising letter to supporters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted “politics of personal destruction, including endless investigations against President Obama” if the GOP wins the House. Issa would “embark on a witch hunt in hopes of bringing down the Obama administration,” Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn, suggested to a gathering of liberal bloggers this summer.

He would even go as far as to issue subpoenas for information related to Obama’s birth, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said during an interview published last month on the African-American news website theGrio. The remark was a reference to the so-called “birther movement” of people who believe Obama was not born in the United States, and thus should not be president.

“Clyburn made me a birther!” exclaimed a clearly tickled Issa, whose district includes Temecula, Lake Elsinore and Perris, along with a portion of San Diego County.

Nothing, he said, could be further from the truth.

“I don’t intend on going after the president,” he said. “I intend on going after the bureaucracy.”

Issa, whose staff would double from about 40 to roughly 80, said he wouldn’t fight the administration’s policy agenda. He said he would instead monitor its implementation for cases of abuse or government fraud. For example, he said, he would investigate government programs like the president’s $787 billion recovery act. Issa also said he would avoid the use of subpoena power, whenever possible, and seek information through negotiations with administration officials.

So rampant are the dire warnings from Democrats that Issa penned a guest editorial in Monday’s USA Today to rebut them and promise an effort toward cooperation.

Not everyone is convinced that Issa would play nice with Democrats.

“Let’s be honest here — the only thing Republicans like Darrell Issa have been doing, and will continue to do, is try to score political points instead of doing the hard work to improve the lives of the American people,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Frank Benenati said.

Issa said such accusations are, at least in part, attempts by Democrats to vilify him in order to rally their voting base in advance of the upcoming election.

Not all Democrats are concerned. Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, said he expected his party to retain control in the House, but he isn’t worried about the possibility of Issa becoming chairman.

“I get along good with him,” Baca said. “If he’s in charge of government oversight, I’d look forward to working with him.”

Yet some Republicans relish the idea of Issa using the full extent of the powers that come with the chairman’s gavel.

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