WASHINGTON (AP) — The night before Tuesday's congressional hearing on the White House break-in, bombshell news broke: The intruder had made it much farther into the executive mansion than previously known.
Suspense surrounding the high-profile hearing was heightened. And one lawmaker was at the center of the explosive news: Rep. Jason Chaffetz, an ambitious and media-savvy Republican from Utah.
"If you project weakness, it invites attacks. We want to see overwhelming force," a stern Chaffetz told Secret Service Director Julia Pierson. "If a would-be intruder cannot be stopped by a dog or intercepted by a person, perhaps more lethal force is necessary, and I want those Secret Service agents and officers to know at least this member of Congress has their back."
The energetic and youthful Chaffetz, 47, chairs the national security subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He is a top contender to take over as chairman of the full committee when a new Congress convenes in January.
From his subcommittee perch, he's led the investigation into the Sept. 19 security breach at the White House, where an intruder with a knife scaled the fence and dashed inside.
According to the initial Secret Service account, the intruder, identified as Omar Gonzalez, was stopped just inside the front door. But, as Chaffetz told The Associated Press and other media outlets late Monday, whistleblowers informed his investigators that Gonzalez actually made it all the way into the mansion's storied East Room.
That stunning revelation took center stage Tuesday as Chaffetz and other lawmakers grilled Pierson.
For Chaffetz, the Secret Service hearing provided a high-profile turn in the spotlight at a moment when he's in a very public fight with Ohio Republican Mike Turner to chair the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In only his third term in Congress, Chaffetz has made no secret of his ambitions, describing the post as a dream job. And as the current committee chairman, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California, has demonstrated, leadership of the somewhat obscure congressional investigative panel can be a route to a national profile.
Issa has been a major antagonist of the Obama administration, leading investigations on the IRS, the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and other topics.
In the process, Issa has alienated not just Democrats but also fellow Republicans with his confrontational and hectoring style. In one incident, Issa cut off the microphones as the senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, was attempting to make a point.
Chaffetz has taken pains to make clear that he would do things differently. He is a strong conservative, but unlike some tea party lawmakers, he is not a thorn in the side of GOP leadership. He's liked and respected by fellow Republicans and viewed as being dogged but not shrill in his committee role. He's also seen as a bridge to a younger generation, more attuned to technology and media than most in Congress. He often appears on TV and has racked up 77,000 Twitter followers with the handle @jasoninthehouse; unlike many in Congress, he writes his own tweets.
Chaffetz has also made a point of reaching out to Democrats, accepting Cummings' invitation over the summer to visit his district in inner city Baltimore, then inviting Cummings to Utah, where the two toured the sites and shared barbecue.
"Rep. Chaffetz has shown a sincere interest in working in a bipartisan manner as well as focusing on reform, which is something new for the Oversight Committee," Cummings said.