By Bernie Becker - 04/10/14 01:00 PM EDT
The House Oversight Committee approved contempt charges on Thursday against former IRS official Lois Lerner, turning up the heat once more on the agency’s Tea Party controversy.
The contempt resolution now moves to the full House, where it has the support of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other GOP leaders. Thursday’s vote comes a day after Republicans opened a new line of criticism against Lerner, accusing her of targeting the prominent GOP group Crossroads GPS.
Key House Oversight members in both parties have intensified their rhetoric on the IRS investigation in recent days, with Democrats lobbing comparisons to McCarthyism and accusing Republicans of engaging in election-year political theater.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has suggested that the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), colluded with the IRS in taking a deeper look at a conservative group.
But on Thursday, Issa and other Republicans cast the contempt vote against Lerner, who has twice refused to answer questions before the committee, as a last resort to secure her testimony.
Republicans have ruled that Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment rights by proclaiming her innocence in a May 2013 opening statement before Oversight, and say that she can fill many of the holes left in the committee’s investigation into the IRS’s scrutiny of groups seeking tax-exempt status.
“It would be irresponsible for the committee not to vigorously pursue her testimony,” Issa said in his opening statement.
Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), one of Lerner’s most strident critics, added that Republicans needed to march forward because investigations like the Justice Department’s were “a complete joke.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.) and other GOP lawmakers also left no doubt that they thought Lerner had lost Fifth Amendment protections, with Gowdy saying the now-retired IRS official had made 17 different factual statements during her first appearance before the panel.
Democrats, meanwhile, took pains to stress that they weren’t defending Lerner or her performance as chief of an IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups — just her constitutional rights.
Cummings, for instance, said he wanted to know why Lerner had kept Congress in the dark about the IRS’s treatment of Tea Party groups.
“We are defending Ms. Lerner’s right to exercise her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination precisely because she cuts a less than heroic figure,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).
But Cummings, Connolly and other Democrats also openly compared Thursday’s proceedings with McCarthyism.
“I cannot cast a vote that would place me on the same page of the history books as Senator Joseph McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee,” Cummings said. “And I do not draw that comparison lightly.”
Democrats also charged that Issa had muffed the chance to get Lerner’s testimony without a contempt charge by botching negotiations with her lawyer, Bill Taylor of Zuckerman Spaeder. Taylor said in a Thursday statement that Lerner broke no laws, and insisted "there is not a court in this country that will hold Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress."
"We are not surprised by today’s partisan contempt vote. The notion that the majority is engaged in objective oversight or fact-finding is pure fiction," Taylor said. "The majority proceeds without regard to the harm it inflicts on innocent people, to the facts, and to fundamental constitutional rights."
The Oversight vote is only an opening step in what could a protracted contempt process. If the full House approves the resolution, it would then go to a U.S. attorney to potentially bring before a federal court.
House Republicans are still mired in court challenges after voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt in 2012, but Boehner has made clear he wants to pursue similar actions against Lerner — a move that would surely excite rank-and-file conservatives and grassroots conservative groups.
“As I’ve said, if Lois Lerner continues to refuse to testify, then the House will hold her in contempt,” the Speaker said Wednesday.
The House counsel ruled in recent weeks that Issa and the Oversight panel could move contempt charges against Lerner.
But Cummings and other Democrats have argued, relying on the advice of some two dozen legal experts, that Issa dropped the ball on his contempt efforts by not explicitly telling Lerner at a March hearing that she faced charges if she declined to answer questions.
Issa used that disagreement to push for the contempt charges, saying the federal courts would be the best suited to make the call on whether Lerner should be forced to testify, and to push back on the Democrats’ comparisons to McCarthy.
“I think the question is should an independent arbitrator decide,” Issa said.
On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee, on another party-line vote, referred Lerner to the Justice Department and Holder for potential prosecution.
The referral letter from Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) says that Lerner pushed to reject the tax-exempt application submitted by Crossroads GPS, the group co-founded by Karl Rove, and also sought to audit the organization.
Camp’s referral also accuses Lerner of misleading an inspector general about when she found out about the IRS scrutiny, and that she mishandled taxpayer information.
The committee says the laws Lerner might have broken are punishable by up to 11 years in prison.
The final decision about whether to prosecute lies with the Justice Department.
Democrats criticized Camp and GOP tax writers for making a political show of making the referral, which they said was mainly an attempt to protect Rove and other big-money Republican groups.
--This report was updated at 3:44 p.m.