Lerner contempt charges on hold

The House Oversight Committee is unlikely to consider potential contempt charges against former IRS official Lois Lerner this week, a GOP aide said Monday.

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Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had said that he could move on holding Lerner in contempt this week, after the former head of an IRS tax-exempt division invoked her Fifth Amendment rights for a second time on Wednesday.

But Issa likely won’t meet that timeline, after a dust-up between the California Republican and the top Democrat on the Oversight panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), dominated headlines late last week.

Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, said separately Monday that: “As required by the rules, a business meeting announcement and contempt report will give members at least three business days notice."

The House is scheduled to be out of Washington next week, meaning the Oversight panel would probably be unable to consider contempt charges before late March.

Congressional Republicans have intensified their interest in the IRS in recent months, with GOP lawmakers insisting that all roads in their investigation lead back to Lerner.

But the confrontation between Issa and Cummings on Wednesday — the Oversight chairman used a throat-slashing gesture to cut the Democrat’s microphone — overshadowed Lerner’s return to the Oversight hearing room. Issa apologized to Cummings on Thursday after Democrats called for stripping him of the Oversight gavel.

"It became crystal clear last week that the IRS investigation is being driven by politics, but given the widespread criticism the Chairman got for his abusive actions — especially from Republicans — it's not surprising now that they have to put off the contempt vote,” a Democratic aide said Monday.

Delaying a contempt vote in Oversight would allow those tensions from last week’s hearing to simmer, and give the GOP another chance to put the focus squarely on Lerner.

The retired IRS official first took the Fifth in May 2013, less than two weeks after she became the first agency official to apologize for the improper scrutiny the IRS gave to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.

The Oversight panel later ruled that she waived her Fifth Amendment rights by proclaiming her innocence in her May opening statement.

But Lerner’s lawyer, Bill Taylor, has said he believes that the federal courts will reject that ruling, and that he doesn’t believe Congress will get his client’s testimony.

Taylor and Issa’s staff were unable to reach a final agreement for Lerner to testify, after negotiations that lasted until shortly before Wednesday’s hearing. Taylor has also said that he discussed potential immunity for his client’s testimony with the Oversight panel.

The IRS did agree last week to supply House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who is also investigating the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups, with a wide range of Lerner’s emails and other documents.

Camp and other Republicans have complained that the agency had been slow to meet its requests for documents.