Once loath to call for special prosecutor, Republican senators now lean toward it

Top congressional Republicans are sounding increasingly open to having a special prosecutor investigate the IRS's targeting of Tea Party groups, saying they have serious doubts about the Obama administration's criminal investigation into the matter.

GOP lawmakers were loath to call for a special prosecutor in the days after the IRS first acknowledged the targeting last May – in large part because Attorney General Eric Holder, who has clashed frequently with Republicans, would be charged with appointing the prosecutor.

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But in the almost nine months since, Republicans have struggled to prove that the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status had ties to the White House or was politically motivated – and not just the result of bureaucratic mismanagement.

Now, Republicans are also furious about media reports that the federal government’s criminal investigation into the IRS is unlikely to lead to charges, and that a key attorney in that probe has given thousands of dollars to Obama and Democratic causes.

For those reasons and others, both Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Holder that the time had come for a special prosecutor at a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.

“Predecessors of yours in both parties, Democrat and Republican, when faced with serious charges of abuse of power for partisan gain, have made the right decision and appointed special prosecutors,” Cruz said.

Even Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) – who has cited Holder’s role in previously opposing a special prosecutor – suggested he was coming around.

“Clearly, Eric Holder and the Justice Department can’t be trusted, because they put the political donor in charge of the investigation, which I think undermines any credibility it might otherwise have. So I’d be open to other ideas, including that,” said Cornyn, who has also complained that federal investigators have made little effort to talk to Tea Party activists ensnared by the IRS.

To be fair, some Republicans have been calling for a special prosecutor from the jump, saying Congress is ill-equipped to handle this sort of investigation.

But either way, Holder has brushed aside any and all Republican requests, saying he trusts the career investigators currently examining the IRS’s treatment of groups seeking 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status.

The Republicans who are heading up congressional inquiries into the IRS – like House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (Mich.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) – have also yet to embrace the idea of a special prosecutor, a move that could blunt their own investigations.

“Given the current concerns with DOJ and that they did not undertake a serious investigation into the targeting, we would be skeptical of a Holder-appointed special counsel,” said Sarah Swinehart, a spokeswoman for Camp.

But the increased interest from Republicans does underscore that the case against the IRS hasn’t materialized the way the GOP had hoped.

It also comes as top Republicans like Camp and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are making election year attacks against new proposed rules to govern the 501(c)(4) groups at the center of the controversy. Tea Party activists have criticized Republicans in recent months for agreeing to a budget compromise, and for showing potential interest in immigration reform.

“What’s really got me upset is that they’re continuing to pour it on 501(c)(4)s,” Hatch said.

At the recent Judiciary hearing, Holder staunchly defended Barbara Bosserman, the attorney who has donated to Obama, saying Justice officials have long put aside any political leanings they might have when conducting these kinds of investigations.

The attorney general also stressed that Bosserman was not the lead attorney on the case, and that the investigation remains ongoing – meaning no decisions have been made about whether to file charges in the case.

'I don't think that there is a basis for us to conclude, on the information as it presently exists, that there is any reason for the appointment of independent counsel,” Holder said.

“I have faith in the career people who are handling this matter to do so in a way that is free of any kind of partisan or ideological tint and to come to an assessment of the facts and the law, based only on the facts and on the law.”

Republicans like House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) still have Bosserman in their sights. Jordan lodged a complaint with the Justice Department on Friday for not making Bosserman available to testify before an Oversight subcommittee. Issa and Jordan have also accused the FBI of stonewalling the committee’s investigation.

But a spokesman for Issa did not respond when asked if the chairman was open to a special prosecutor.

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, say that GOP calls for a special prosecutor are ridiculous, given what’s been uncovered the last eight months and counting.

“This is a ridiculous suggestion on its face since Republican congressional investigators have turned over this issue six ways to Sunday and found absolutely no indication of any illegal activity,” one House Democratic aide said.