Looming fiscal fights threaten IRS probes

Republicans on Capitol Hill are acknowledging that the fall’s looming fiscal fights could peel attention away from their investigation into the IRS’s singling out of conservative groups.

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Congress return to Washington in a week, at which time lawmakers will seek deals to fund the government past the end of September and to raise the debt ceiling by mid-October. They will now also consider authorizing military action against Syria.

But Republicans have also made the IRS investigation a key part of their recent political message, at a time when the agency is trying to implement the Democratic healthcare law that conservatives are itching to defund. The controversy has also helped revive a Tea Party movement that had been flagging in recent months.

With all that in mind, GOP aides stress that the congressional investigation into the IRS will be moving full speed ahead, even as a potential debt default takes up much of the oxygen in the halls of Congress.

Plus, they add that discussions are underway about potential hearings in the fall, and that the tax-writing committees have more than enough staff to deal with the IRS targeting and fiscal issues.

“The committee has a wide span of issues on its plate, but we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Sarah Swinehart, a spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), told The Hill. “These investigations take a long time, and we’re under no illusion that this will be over quickly.”

Republicans add that they believe there’s plenty of key information left in the thousands of pages of documents the IRS has yet to hand over – especially when it comes to Lois Lerner, the top agency official at the center of the controversy.

Top Republicans have complained in recent months that the IRS has been slow to hand over documents dealing with its treatment of groups seeking tax-exempt status.

But Ways and Means did receive a new set of documents this week on Lerner, who first disclosed and apologized for the targeting of Tea Party groups in May.

Republicans say there are lots of questions about Lerner and her role and motivations in the controversy, especially given that the IRS official declined to testify when called before the House Oversight Committee.

Camp and House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) have continued to seek answers about Lerner’s outreach to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) about tax-exempt groups and other information about her role at the head of the agency division that oversees tax-exempt groups.

Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, said on Friday that the committee hopes to further press members of Lerner’s inner circle about what she knew. Oversight has ruled that Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment rights in May by making a statement before the committee, and could bring her back.

"We’re trying to get the complete picture and try to best understand how this happened,” Hill said. “There may be unique pieces that only Lois Lerner herself can fill in."

The Senate investigation into the IRS has so far been a much quieter and less partisan affair, with Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), teaming up for a bipartisan inquiry.

But senators are likely to have plenty of chances in the coming weeks and months to weigh in publicly on the IRS and John Koskinen, President Obama’s choice to take over full-time reins of the agency.

Senate Finance aides said they had only recently received Koskinen’s nomination paperwork – some four weeks after the pick was announced – making it tough to say when a nomination hearing might be scheduled.

Congress will also continue its investigation after the public’s attention to the IRS controversy has arguably waned, following white-hot interest immediately after the story broke.

Republicans insist that the public remains skeptical of both the IRS, and the administration’s handling of the issue. But in recent months, Democrats have become increasingly critical of the GOP’s conduct in the investigation, with one party aide likening it to a deep-sea fishing expedition.

Democrats have also maintained that the IRS also gave extra scrutiny to liberal groups, and that an exhaustive three-month investigation – including thousands of pages of documents and close to two dozen interviews – has found clear mismanagement at the agency but no partisan mischief.

Because of that, Democrats say it’s hard to see where Republicans find a breakthrough in the investigation.

“Everything we’ve seen to date, after all these interviews, is that there was in fact no White House involvement or political motivation,” a Democratic aide said. “They certainly haven’t found what they’ve alleged from the beginning. And there are other important issues that we need to be concentrating on.”

House Democratic aides also say that they don’t have the same sort of bandwidth that their GOP colleagues have to deal with a protracted fiscal negotiation and an IRS investigation at the same time.

“The debt ceiling issue is a matter of saving the economy, and it’s vital that do that,” another Democratic aide said.

Republicans, who say that the IRS treated conservative groups more harshly than liberal organizations, say they those sorts of comments illustrate that Democrats want to prematurely call an end to the investigation.

John Feehery, a GOP strategist, said that Republicans would be smart to keep the focus on the IRS in the coming months, with some on the right trying to use the fiscal deadlines as leverage to make changes to Obama’s healthcare law.

“You have to make the connection to ObamaCare, because it’s so hot right now,” Feehery said. “And you get to be on the side of the taxpayer.”