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House Republicans are expected to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress on Wednesday for refusing to testify about the agency’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups.
The vote represents an escalation in the almost-year long IRS controversy, which broke last May when Lerner acknowledged and apologized for the agency’s treatment of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.
GOP leaders and top Republicans on the House Oversight Committee, which voted to hold Lerner in contempt last month, have cast the move as a last resort and accused the Obama administration of obstructing their investigation.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday discussed the IRS in tandem with the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, which House Republicans are now seeking to form a special committee to investigate.
"Who’s been fired over the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS? No one that I’m aware of. Who’s gone to jail for violating the law? When is the administration going to tell the American people the truth?” Boehner told reporters on Wednesday.
“Now, only one would have to guess, if they're not willing to tell the American people the truth, it must not be very pretty,” the Speaker added.
Lerner has twice invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination before House Oversight, once in May 2013 and then in March.
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and other Republicans argue that she waived those rights by making an opening statement in which she said she had done nothing wrong and broken no laws.
Democrats charge that Issa and the GOP are using tactics once used by former Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) in the 1950s, even as they’re careful not to defend Lerner or her work as chief of an IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups. They say that there’s plenty of precedent that suggests Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment rights.
Democrats have also linked the IRS controversy and Benghazi, but only to accuse the GOP of pandering to their base in an election year.
"What it appears we will have is a lot of distraction on the floor, a lot of very partisan votes on a number of processes that are extremely partisan," Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the No. 4 Democrat in the House, said after a closed door-meeting in the Capitol.
"Some would actually call them sessions that lead to inquisitions, that hearken back to the days of the McCarthy era. Either way, I don't think the American public cares a whole lot except to say that they want us to get to the real business of this country."
If and when House Republicans approve the contempt resolution, it would be up to the local U.S. attorney and the Justice Department to decide whether to bring the case to court.
Federal prosecutors historically have declined to prosecute administration officials like Attorney General Eric Holder, who the House held in contempt in 2012, when they invoke executive privilege. But executive privilege isn’t likely to play a role in Lerner’s case.
Lerner’s lawyer, Bill Taylor of Zuckerman Spaeder, has long argued that the courts would reject any contempt charges against her. Taylor has also called the contempt charges “un-American,” and that the idea that Republicans are “engaged in objective oversight or fact-finding is pure fiction.”
The GOP plan to further escalate the IRS controversy this week by urging Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the agency, saying they have lost faith in the Justice Department’s open inquiry.
Republicans on Ways and Means Committee have also urged the Justice Department to prosecute Lerner for a variety of charges.
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