Republicans unload on the IRS

Leading GOP lawmakers are urging the IRS to withdraw new proposed rules governing tax-exempt groups, casting the regulations as a political power play meant to silence conservatives.

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Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) are among the 11 Republicans asking John Koskinen, the IRS chief, to pull back on the regulations released in November as a response to the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups.

Republicans have slammed those rules, saying they would merely codify the targeting of Tea Party groups that sought tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status. In Thursday’s letter to Koskinen, the Republicans called the rules “an affront to free speech.”

“The timing of this rule appears calculated to take effect just in time for the mid-term elections, giving the strong appearance of political motivation,” the GOP lawmakers said.

Koskinen, who has just been on the job for six weeks, has stressed that he had no role in crafting the proposed rules. But he has also brushed aside previous requests from Republicans to withdraw or delay the rules, saying the regulations are up for public comment.

“Everyone can make comments about our draft regulations as they are now,” Koskinen told a House Ways and Means subcommittee on Wednesday.

“There will be a public hearing. There will be numerous occasions for people to bring any information that they would like, or perspectives, about those regulations forward before they are finalized. And they're not going to be finalized in the near-term future,” added Koskinen, who said the administration had already received a record 21,000 comments on the proposals.

But Republicans suggested the commissioner would be seen as controlled by the White House if he doesn't scrap the regulations.

“It is our view that finalizing this proposed rule would make intimidation and harassment of the administration's political opponents the official policy of the IRS and would allow the Obama administration to use your agency as a partisan tool,” they wrote.

“This would be a serious error, especially in the light of the recent track record of intimidation at the IRS. It would also cement your reputation as someone who is unable or unwilling to restore the public's faith in this important agency.”

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (Texas), Sen. John Thune (S.D.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.) signed the letter, as did House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Dave Camp (Mich.) and Hal Rogers (Ky.).

Democrats and campaign finance reform advocates have defended the rules, saying they eliminate some of the confusion caused by the current regulations. That confusion helped fuel the IRS’s treatment of tax-exempt groups, those advocates say.

The new rules would make clear that activities for or against a candidate would not count toward a 501(c)(4) group’s social welfare mission. But they do not specify how much political activity a group can engage in and still receive that designation.

Instead, Treasury and the IRS asked for input on that issue. Koskinen said Wednesday that the comment period for the rules closes at the end of February.

McConnell, a longtime critic of campaign finance reform efforts, also urged Koskinen to take action on the rules on the Senate floor on Thursday.

"Mr. Koskinen, you know the IRS has no business regulating free speech," McConnell said. "The American people are counting on you to do the right thing."

Ramsey Cox contributed.