Ousted IRS official to face House panel as GOP bears down

The official ousted this week as acting chief of the IRS will testify Friday on his agency’s targeting of conservative groups as Republicans bear down on an issue that is keeping President Obama on his heels.

Steven Miller, forced out by President Obama after a quarter century at the IRS, is scheduled to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee, in the first congressional hearing over actions that claimed the job of a second senior agency official on Thursday.

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Ways and Means members from both sides of the aisle said they had a slew of questions for the IRS, especially after a Treasury audit this week found that the agency asked for donor lists and other unnecessary information from conservative groups, and took months or even years to approve applications for tax-exempt status.

Republicans at Ways and Means stressed that their goal was to not let their investigation mutate into a partisan sideshow – even as the congressional GOP, facing their own issues pushing forward their legislative agenda, have made it clear they’ll keep up the pressure on the IRS and other fronts.

“We want to keep this fact-based, and we don’t want to sensationalize it,” said Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Oversight subcommittee. “We want to solve this problem, and we want to clean up the mess at the IRS.

“I’m being very cautious not to overplay my hand,” added Boustany, one of the first GOP lawmakers to raise questions about the IRS’s treatment of Tea Party groups.

But Democrats weren’t so sure of that, even as they said Friday’s hearing can be a bipartisan effort to answer open questions. Instead, some on the panel said they are concerned that Republicans might be more in interested in scoring political points – and dragging out a probe that has already caused days worth of trouble for the White House.

“You can bet on one thing. They’ll overdo it,” said Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.), a senior Ways and Means Democrat.

The furor over the IRS is one in a series of issues that are weighing down the administration, joining the continued attention on last year’s attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s revelation that it seized records from The Associated Press.

Republicans, who currently face their own issues pushing forward their legislative agenda, have made it clear they’ll keep up the pressure on all those fronts. GOP lawmakers, talking specifically about the IRS issue on Thursday, brushed aside the idea that staffers in Ohio were the driving force behind the extra scrutiny given Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.

“We need to know where the facts are. Somebody made a decision to do this,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters. “And I doubt that it was some low-level employees in the Cincinnati field office.”

The Ways and Means hearing will likely be the capper on a wild week, with Obama several times expressing outrage at the IRS’s actions. The announced departure of Joseph Grant, an IRS official who helped oversee tax-exempt groups, also suggests that the revolving door at the agency has yet to stop spinning.

Miller is expected to appear on Friday with Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, whose report details the “ineffective management” at the IRS.

In a sign of just how quickly the IRS’s issues have consumed Washington, Miller and George appeared before a sparsely attended Senate Appropriations panel just last week, discussing matters like sequestration’s impact on the agency.

With all the attention heaped on Friday’s hearing, Obama tried to get ahead of the uproar on Thursday, appointing Danny Werfel, a senior Office of Management and Budget official, to temporarily take over the reins at the IRS.

But in a Rose Garden appearance, Obama also reiterated that he just found out about the agency’s singling out of Tea Party groups in recent days and declined to weigh in on when others in the White House might have found out – another key question in the minds of Republicans.

“I'm looking forward to working with Congress to fully investigate what happened, make sure that it doesn't happen again,” Obama said at a news conference in the Rose Garden. “I promise you this, that the minute I found out about it, then my main focus is making sure that we get the thing fixed.”

The recent attention on the IRS has also appeared to give extra momentum to the Tea Party movement, with activists descending on Washington on Thursday to join lawmakers linked to the movement in denouncing the tax agency.

Those lawmakers, like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), also left the door open for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS, a prospect that Obama said Thursday was unnecessary.

Bachmann and others also noted that Miller’s stint as acting IRS chief was scheduled to expire next month anyway, though the administration could have extended his stay if they wanted.

But with a series of hearings set to follow Ways and Means next week, other GOP lawmakers weren’t ready to take that step yet.

Beyond hearings, Ways and Means members also will likely probe the IRS via taped testimony with officials and private staff meetings.

Boustany said that he would like to hear from the former IRS commissioner, Doug Shulman, on the matter, as well as employees from the Cincinnati office at the epicenter of the controversy.

Shulman is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee next week, and Lois Lerner, the agency official who first disclosed the IRS targeting, has been invited to appear before the panel as well. Top Oversight Republicans have said that Lerner misled them about IRS practices when it came to Tea Party groups.

Neal and other Democrats stressed that there’s no reason as of yet to think that the congressional investigation into the IRS has to last months, as some Republicans have suggested.

Nor, Democrats say, is there any proof that higher-level employees were involved in the Tea Party targeting.

“I really don’t believe that, and you know what? They don’t either,” Neal said. “I’m assuming that this is an effort to rev up their base, and keep the media focused.”