By Bernie Becker and Ramsey Cox - 12/20/13 10:52 AM EST
The Senate voted 59-36 Friday to confirm President Obama’s nominee to head the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
GOP Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), Susan Collins (Maine), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Rob Portman (Ohio) voted with Democrats to confirm John Koskinen.
In a statement, President Obama thanked the Senate for confirming Koskinen, whom he said has always operated with "absolute integrity," even when leading other institutions through "challenging times."
"His strong leadership and unquestioned expertise make him the right person to lead the IRS," he said. The president also thanked the current interim IRS chief, Danny Werfel, who had already told lawmakers he would depart by the end of the year.
In a nomination hearing last week, Koskinen said that one of his central goals would be to restore both taxpayer trust in the tax agency and the morale of employees saddled by scandal.
“In every area of the IRS, taxpayers need to be confident they will be treated fairly, no matter what their background or affiliations,” Koskinen said. “Public trust is the IRS's most important and valuable asset.”
The 74-year-old also complimented the job the agency’s done to prepare for its role in administering Obama’s healthcare reform law.
Senators from both sides of the aisle have said that Koskinen, who has taken on other tough government assignments over recent decades, is more than qualified to take over the commissioner slot.
But many Republicans resisted the push from Democrats to confirm him before the holiday break.
With Werfel on the way out, administration officials have openly worried that, without Senate action, the IRS could be left without a confirmed commissioner when the tax-filing season starts early next year. The IRS announced this week that the filing season would open Jan. 31 — 10 days later than planned.
With that in mind, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and other top Democrats argued it was crucial to confirm Koskinen before the Senate broke for the year.
“This is a critical time to have someone with Mr. Koskinen’s expertise in charge of the IRS,” Baucus said in a statement on Friday.
“We need a confirmed commissioner to begin winning back the public’s trust and manage the ongoing implementation of the Affordable Care Act. I am confident he is up to the task.”
But top Republicans insisted over and over on Thursday that none of the nominees that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was holding out for needed to be handled before the end of this year.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that was especially true for an agency that has shrouded itself in controversy for most of 2013.
“No,” Cornyn, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said Thursday. “Especially when they’re under investigation.”
Hatch and other GOP members of the panel have added that they believe a Koskinen vote should have waited until after the committee releases its bipartisan investigation into the IRS targeting.
That investigation is now expected to wrap up early next year, and Koskinen has vowed to help the senators see it to completion.
Republicans have also blasted new draft federal rules on how much political activity tax-exempt groups can engage in, though Koskinen has cautioned that he had no role in crafting the regulations.
Top IRS officials admitted in May that they had inappropriately singled out Tea Party groups, setting off a firestorm that dominated Washington.
The White House and top congressional Democrats quickly said that top agency officials would need to be held accountable, with several either losing their job or heading to retirement.
But Democrats have also insisted that, after more than half a year of investigation, there is no evidence that anyone outside the IRS played any role in the targeting, or that there was political motivation behind it.
Democrats have also criticized the inspector general who outlined the targeting.
But McConnell and other Republicans have suggested that Democrats are trying to sweep the controversy under the rug. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has sharply criticized the FBI’s investigation into the matter in recent weeks.
The Senate also voted 56-36 Friday to end debate on the nomination of Brian Davis to be U.S. district judge for the District of Florida. His nomination has been pending for nearly two years.
—This post was updated at 1:28 p.m.