Lerner takes Fifth; contempt vote possible

House Republicans are heading toward a contempt vote against the former Internal Revenue Service official at the center of the agency’s targeting controversy.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told reporters Wednesday that he would decide whether to seek a contempt vote by the end of next week. Issa made his remarks after an explosive hearing in which the IRS official, Lois Lerner, again invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

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Earlier in the day, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that “at some point I believe she has to testify, or I believe she should be held in contempt.”

Issa said he had started discussing whether to move forward with contempt charges against Lerner with the House counsel’s office and with Oversight subcommittee chairmen.

“We’re not going to take a long time. We’ve taken nine and a half months to give her every opportunity,” said the California Republican, who is in his last scheduled year as chairman of the panel.

Lerner first took the Fifth in May 2013, less than two weeks after she became the first IRS official to apologize for the improper scrutiny the agency gave to Tea Party organizations.

Since then, GOP lawmakers have increasingly insisted that Lerner is the linchpin to their various IRS probes. Without Lerner’s cooperation, Republicans say they might never answer outstanding questions about the agency’s treatment of groups seeking tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status.

But with Lerner again refusing to answer questions, Republicans are left with a dwindling number of options, almost 10 months into those investigations.

Issa acknowledged Wednesday that the end of the scrutiny might be near without greater cooperation from Lerner. If Lerner had answered questions, Issa said, her input would have led to a “pretty quick close” to the investigation and that her refusal to talk might be the last obstacle to closing the matter.

“It may well be that we have gotten to the bottom of this,” he said. “It may dead-end with Ms. Lerner.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), whose committee is also investigating the matter, said the IRS has been slow to deliver on requests for Lerner’s emails, which lawmakers are relying on more heavily because of her decision not to testify.

“Frankly, if the key witness had not taken the Fifth, we probably would be at the bottom of this issue,” Camp said at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. “I still don’t have all of her emails.”

The Republicans expressed those concerns on a day when the Oversight panel, already known as one of the more contentious on Capitol Hill, took the partisan volume to another level.

After Issa exhausted his questions for Lerner and received no substantive response, he quickly adjourned the hearing. Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s top Democrat, asked for the chance to speak, which Issa originally ignored.

As Cummings continued to protest, Issa cut off Cummings’s microphone while Republicans left the hearing room to Democratic cries of “Shame!”

Without a working microphone, Cummings went on to loudly criticize Issa’s handling of the probe, calling it one-sided and “un-American.”

“I am a member of the United States Congress of America! I am tired of this!” he yelled.

Talking to reporters after the hearing, Issa shot back, saying Cummings was “slandering” him when the microphones were cut off by criticizing the investigation, which he maintained had remained bipartisan.

Committee Democrats fired off a letter to Issa following the hearing, demanding his immediate apology. Issa told reporters it was Democrats that should be apologetic, over Cummings’s “inappropriate” conduct.

Democrats have stressed that there’s no evidence the IRS scrutiny was politically motivated or in any way tied to the White House. But GOP members maintain the IRS treated conservative groups far more harshly than their liberal counterparts.

Lerner’s attorney, Bill Taylor, and Issa sparred from afar about whether Lerner had previously agreed to testify on Wednesday.

Issa told reporters that Lerner and her attorney had backtracked on an agreement. Taylor said the committee had not agreed to his request for a one-week delay in her testimony, and that Issa had falsely claimed on national television that Lerner had agreed to testify.

With contempt charges looming, Taylor added that he is confident she will win in court, and that he didn’t see a path for the GOP to get Lerner’s testimony. Republicans contend that, by stating in May she was innocent of any wrongdoing, Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment rights.

“We’ll see whether the committee has any intent of litigating this matter in the United States District Court,” Taylor told reporters Wednesday. “I’m confident that if they do, she will prevail.”

Taylor acknowledged that he had discussed getting Lerner immunity for her testimony with the Oversight Committee.

But Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who heads an Oversight subcommittee, said she should feel free to answer questions after the president said there was no corruption at play and after reports suggested the FBI had no plans to file charges.

“If you’ve got the president of the United States saying you’re fine, you’ve got the Justice Department saying no one’s going to jail, and you still won’t talk? Well, there’s something big there,” he told The Hill. “That’s why we’ve got to keep digging and keep the pressure up on her.”

If Republicans proceed with a contempt push, it could still be quite a while before anything comes to fruition.

“The House has to vote. It has to go to a U.S. attorney. The U.S. attorney has to present it, and then she’s indicted, and then it first goes to a federal district court. That’s a year or more,” said Stanley Brand, who was the House’s general counsel under former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and has said he doesn’t think Lerner waived her rights. “It’s not a very efficient or expeditious way to get answers.”

House Republicans acknowledge as much, pointing to the current protracted battle they’re having in the courts after voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.

But they clearly don’t see any downside in pressing ahead against Lerner. The National Republican Congressional Committee sent out releases to the districts of more than three-dozen incumbent Democrats, accusing them of refusing “to hold the IRS accountable.”

“The administration continues to say there’s nothing to see here,” said Rep. James Lankord (R-Okla.), who’s running for Senate this year. “She continues to say I’m not going to talk about it. That’s a problem.”