By Bernie Becker and Peter Schroeder - 05/26/13 10:00 AM EDT
Leading congressional Democrats say they don’t believe the investigation into the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups needs a special prosecutor – at least not yet.
But like Republicans, top Democrats also want to give their own probe into the issue more time, two weeks after news first broke and following three hearings left many questions unanswered.
“I think it’s too soon,” said Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), whose committee held one of those three hearings. “I don’t think there’s enough evidence to warrant a special prosecutor.”
Of course, Democrats don’t agree with every reason why Republicans aren’t on board with a special counsel. GOP lawmakers, for instance, are troubled that Attorney General Eric Holder, with whom they’ve sparred on more than a couple occasions, would be in charge of appointing the prosecutor.
But Democratic lawmakers do believe that Congress is more than capable of handling a deeper dive into the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups, and aren’t ready to see another investigation take any momentum away from what’s happening on Capitol Hill.
Democrats also raised the specter of the Clinton-era investigations, even though the independent counsel statute that allowed those sorts of probes has expired. Independent counsels were appointed by appeals court judges, and could have broader jurisdictions than special prosecutors.
“I haven’t seen anything yet that would make me think that we need to take this to a special prosecutor. Period,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat at House Oversight, which held its first hearing into the IRS on Wednesday.
“I believe that we can handle this, and we will,” Cummings said.
Still, some in the party aren’t so sure. Rep. Stephen Lynch (Mass.), a senior Democrat on the Oversight panel, raised the specter of a special counsel during Wednesday’s hearing after growing frustrated that senior IRS officials shed little light on why conservative groups were targeted, and who authorized it.
“If this committee is prevented by obstruction or by refusal to answer the questions that we need to get to the bottom of this, you will leave us no alternative but to ask for the appointment of a special prosecutor,” Lynch said at the hearing during which lawmakers in both parties grilled Doug Shulman, the former IRS commissioner.
But even that response underscores that, while Democrats are deeply unhappy with the IRS, they don’t see anything to link the growing scandal to the Treasury Department and the White House.
Instead, Democrats have pressed the idea that clumsy management at the IRS is to blame for how the agency handled applications for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status, and are angered with how the IRS responded to lawmakers who expressed concern months ago.
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), a member of House Democratic leadership, told reporters on Thursday that he thinks lawmakers should exhaust every investigative power they have before calling for a special prosecutor.
Crowley, who serves on House Ways and Means, the first committee to hold a hearing on the IRS’s actions, has been particularly pointed in his criticism of Lois Lerner, the agency official currently at the center of the scandal.
The New York Democrat has called for Lerner’s removal, saying that she misled him about the targeting in a Ways and Means subcommittee hearing just two days before Lerner publicly disclosed and apologized for the IRS’s behavior.
The IRS placed Lerner on administrative leave last week after the new acting IRS chief, Danny Werfel, pressed for her to resign. Lerner will also likely be called back before House Oversight after the committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), concluded that she had waived her Fifth Amendment rights.
“It’s the responsibility of Congress to have oversight of these agencies,” Crowley said about the IRS. “They failed to realize who they’re accountable to.”
Democrats have also tried to broaden the conversation about the IRS controversy to include a more general discussion over the laws and regulations overseeing tax-exempt social welfare groups.
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), a top Democrat at Ways and Means, argued a special prosecutor could make the probe metastasize into something unwieldy.
"The history of Congress with special prosecutors has not worked very well," he said. "The history of it with Congress is that it went well beyond what was fully intended. The investigations really became endless and boundless, and that's the imminent danger here."
Neal also made it clear that Democrats’ sympathy for the Tea Party groups that were targeted only went so far. "They want you to think they're victims,” he said. “I don't wholly ascribe victimization to their motives."