The IRS apologized Friday for flagging Tea Party groups for a higher level of scrutiny than other organizations during the 2012 election.
Those employees, Lerner told reporters on Friday, were “less sensitive than they should have been about the impact this might have.”
“We made some mistakes,” Lerner said. “For that, we apologize.”
Lerner insisted the employees were not targeting conservative outfits for partisan reasons, but lawmakers and the White House said the charges deserved additional scrutiny.
“It does seem to be based on what we've seen inappropriate action we would want to see thoroughly investigated,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Friday that the House of Representatives would also investigate the matter independently.
GOP lawmakers had repeatedly raised concerns last year that the IRS was unfairly singling out Tea Party groups, and they and the groups were in no mood to just accept Friday's apology.
“The IRS has demonstrated the most disturbing, illegal and outrageous abuse of government power,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. “This deliberate targeting and harassment of Tea Party groups reaches a new low in illegal government activity and overreach.”
Top IRS officials — including Doug Shulman, the then-commissioner — stressed to lawmakers in 2012 that the agency prided itself on being above politics and was not targeting any single group.
Lerner said Friday that top IRS brass were not informed of the Ohio office’s mistake before they testified, and that the agency moved to correct its mistakes after they were uncovered last year.
She added that the IRS had started looking into the matter after seeing news media reports on the issue last year.
Agency officials had also asked some Tea Party groups for a list of their donors as part of the application process, something Lerner said was not generally done.
Lerner declined to comment on whether the employees involved were disciplined over the matter, and said she didn't know whether Treasury or the White House was aware of the situation before Friday.
Carney stressed that the IRS was an “independent enforcement agency” that contained only two political appointees. He also noted that the “individual who was running the IRS was an appointee from a previous administration.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that the IRS’s announcement — which Lerner first made to reporters on Friday at a conference in Washington — was proof that Republicans’ concerns were well-founded, and that President Obama needed to be told that “the First Amendment is non-negotiable.”
"Today, I call on the White House to conduct a transparent, government-wide review aimed at assuring the American people that these thuggish practices are not underway at the IRS or elsewhere in the administration against anyone, regardless of their political views."
In the House, the top Republicans at the Oversight panel suggested that hearings could be held on the issue. Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) said he wanted the IRS to hand over the names of the employees involved and all internal communication dealing with the matter.
“My greatest concern is what would have come from this blatant abuse of power if Ways and Means, as well as others, had not spoken up and stepped in to question the IRS about these activities,” said Boustany, who pressed Shulman on the issue in hearings last year and is the chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight.
"The IRS’s ‘too little too late’ response is unacceptable, and I will continue to work to ensure there are protections in place so no American, regardless of political affiliation, has their right to free speech threatened by the IRS.”
Over the last year or so, activists and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have showered the IRS with criticism over its handling of Tea Party groups and their applications for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status. That designation, which allows groups to not disclose their donors, is reserved for social welfare groups.
But the IRS does generally rule that groups that keep less than half their work political can still be primarily a social welfare group, and thus eligible for 501(c)(4) status.
With that in mind, groups on both the right and the left – including those linked to Karl Rove (Crossroads GPS) and President Obama (Priorities USA) – have organized as 501(c)(4)s.
On the Friday conference call, Lerner said that applications for the social welfare status had more than doubled between 2010 and 2012 – from roughly 1,500 to more than 3,400.
To deal with that influx, career IRS officials tried to streamline that process by organizing applications into issue groups – leading to applications featuring “Tea Party” or “patriots” to be separated.
In all, the IRS says, the agency followed up with around 300 applicants for extra information, with roughly a quarter of those being from the “Tea Party” and “patriot” pile.
The IRS will follow up with groups, Lerner said Friday, if the applicant doesn’t provide enough information about the work they plan to conduct, or if the IRS needs other information.
Lerner added that the agency had approved well over 100 applications, with most of the rest still pending and others withdrawn. But the IRS official was also either unwilling or unable to discuss the political leanings or advocacy conducted by the other 225 or so applicants the agency followed up with.
“I wouldn’t call it partisan,” Lerner stressed about the employees’ work. “I think it was because they were looking at the caseload coming through the door.”
Roughly a dozen GOP senators – including McConnell, Orrin Hatch (Utah), the ranking member at Senate Finance and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) – had pressed the IRS about their treatment of Tea Party groups last March.
The senators had sent a letter after Tea Party groups complained that the IRS was asking broad questions about their inner working, something the GOP lawmakers said suggested those groups were being vetted more closely than others.
But Democrats and some left-leaning oversight groups have also accused the IRS of being too lenient in allowing groups engaging in politics to obtain 501(c)(4) status.
That status, they say, should be reserved for groups who exclusively work on social welfare issues. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has already sued the IRS on the issue.
Hatch said Friday the IRS’s apology, while welcome, wasn't enough, and that there was a "Nixonian" effect from the IRS being turned into a political weapon.
"We need to have ironclad guarantees from the IRS that it will adopt significant protocols to ensure this kind of harassment of groups that have a constitutional right to express their own views never happens again," said Hatch, who wants a full briefing from the agency.
"The American people deserve to know who at the IRS learned about this unlawful activity, when they learned about it and what they did, or did not, do when they learned about it," he said.
Justin Sink contributed to this story.
This story was posted at 10:58 a.m. and last updated at 7:46 p.m.