Baucus races against clock on IRS probe

Greg Nash

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is scrambling to complete an investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s screening of Tea Party and conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status before he jets off to become ambassador to China.

But Baucus and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) both acknowledge it’s far from a slam-dunk that they’ll be able to finish the investigation, though they say they’re cautiously optimistic it would be done before the Montana Democrat leaves Congress.

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He said Wednesday he hopes to wrap up the IRS probe in the next two to three weeks. Still, he also acknowledged he was trying to make progress on several other issues in what should be the final weeks of his nearly four-decade career on Capitol Hill.

Those include a new trade measure that Baucus crafted with Republicans and a bipartisan effort on the so-called Medicare “doc fix.”

On top of that, Baucus’s nomination hearing for the Beijing post is expected within weeks, perhaps by the end of the month, which could put him on the path toward a quick confirmation.

“I’ve got a lot on my plate — a lot we’re working on, to say the least,” Baucus told reporters.

Lawmakers and aides alike say it would be preferable for all involved if Baucus and Hatch, the top Republican on the committee, finish what they started some eight months ago, shortly after the IRS first acknowledged singling out conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status. Other congressional committees are also examining the IRS, in addition to a Justice Department criminal probe.

If that doesn’t happen, they fear that momentum for the bipartisan investigation could be blunted as the committee transitions to a new chairman, likely to be Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The Senate investigation has already faced delays from last year’s government shutdown, which killed off any chance that Baucus and Hatch could release their findings in 2013, as they had hoped.

Hatch said Wednesday that committee investigators still have many documents to pore over and needed to take a closer look at the Treasury Department’s role.

“I’d like to get it out before he goes,” Hatch said. “It’s important that we hopefully follow all the way through.”

“We still have a little bit to do. That’s the goal. I’ll put it that way,” the Utah Republican said.

But to reach that goal, Baucus and Hatch are trying to get their investigation over the finish line at a time when Democrats and Republicans appear increasingly suspicious of each other when it comes to the IRS.

Finance Committee members from both sides of the aisle have long contrasted their investigation into the IRS targeting scandal with the more partisan, freewheeling probes happening in the House.

But Hatch and other top Republicans were outraged this week over reports federal authorities had no plans to file criminal charges over the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups. Those Republicans say it was too early for the FBI and Justice Department to say the screening pointed more toward mismanagement than political targeting.

 The reports also gave new doubts to Republicans who were already skeptical about how interested the Obama administration and congressional Democrats were in getting to the bottom of the controversy.

“I’m quite certain that there are a lot of Democrats up here who would like to see it turn out that way,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a member of the GOP leadership, said when asked if the Finance panel had waited too long to weigh in on the IRS targeting.

“If you’re a member of the American public,” Thune added, “I would think that you would want accountability, and you would want at least some sense of justice about it. So I don’t think the issue goes away.”

House Republicans also have pushed to block new proposed rules Democrats believe could take away some of the uncertainty surrounding the 501(c)(4) groups at the center of the controversy. Other GOP lawmakers have criticized the FBI and Justice Department’s handling of the investigation.

Democrats, meanwhile, have said Republicans have consistently exaggerated the case against the IRS, insisting the evidence points only to an agency that was poorly run, not on the hunt for Tea Party organizations.

Congressional Democrats add there’s no evidence the White House is involved and note that the IRS singled out some liberal groups as well.  For his part, Baucus is still trying to stay above the fray, saying the new reports that enraged Republicans wouldn’t affect the committee’s work.

“We just move,” Baucus said. “We just do the best we can with what we’ve got.”

At the same time, other Finance panel members are getting antsy, given how long the investigation has been open.

“I think that will be addressed very quickly,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said. “The committee’s got an important function, and I think it’s absolutely crucial to do this before Baucus leaves.”