Republican lawmakers wary of need for special prosecutor in IRS scandal

Congressional Republicans are skeptical the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups warrants a special prosecutor, fearing that step could limit their own investigation into the agency.

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GOP lawmakers stress that with just one inspector general's report and three hearings in the rearview mirror, it’s too early to lean on a special counsel and that calling for the Justice Department to act should be a last resort.

“When I can’t do my job because I lack the authority or cooperation, I’ll seek additional remedies,” House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told reporters on Thursday.

Top Republicans in both chambers – including Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Trump adviser expected to leave White House, join Juul The Hill's 12:30 Report: McGahn inflames Dem divisions on impeachment MORE (Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorGOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington House Republicans find silver lining in minority MORE (Va.) and Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump gambles in push for drug import proposal Biden's role in Anita Hill hearings defended by witness not allowed to testify 'Congress' worst tax idea ever'? Hardly. MORE (Utah), the top GOP member on the Senate Finance Committee – have sounded similar notes on the prospect of a special counsel.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) also thinks the special counsel chatter is a bit hasty, a committee aide said, and others in the Republican conference say their own investigations are just heating up.

Both tax-writing panels, House Ways and Means and Senate Finance, and House Oversight are continuing their probes into the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

“There will be more hearings coming,” said Rep. Charles BoustanyCharles William BoustanyMarch tariff increase would cost 934K jobs, advocacy group says Bottom Line On The Money: US adds 155k jobs in November | Unemployment holds at 3.7 percent | Wage growth strengthening | Trump signs stopgap spending bill delaying shutdown MORE (R-La.), who heads the House Ways and Means Oversight subcommittee and was an early critic of the IRS’s handling of Tea Party groups. “I think it’s premature.”

The GOP’s current skepticism over a special counsel comes as lawmakers in the party are weighing how to handle a handful of investigations of President Obama’s administration, including the aftermath of last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

New developments in the IRS case are coming by the day. 

On Thursday, Issa said he was poised to call Lois Lerner, a central figure at the IRS in the controversy, back before his committee after he was convinced that Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment rights in a Wednesday hearing.

The IRS also announced a new chief of the exempt organizations division. Lerner was placed on administrative leave after reportedly declining to resign. Lerner first disclosed and apologized for the agency’s policy toward conservative groups on May 10.

But two weeks in, Republicans say it's more than just too early to talk special counsel. A special prosecutor concentrating on criminal violations, they say, might not look into ways Tea Party groups were harmed that fall short of a crime.

A special counsel’s investigation could also yank some of the momentum out of Congress’s own work on the matter. Some in the GOP conference are skeptical of essentially allowing President Obama’s administration to investigate itself.

Under current law, Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderEric Holder: 'There are grounds for impeachment' in Mueller report Prosecutor appointed by Barr poised to enter Washington firestorm Dems struggle to make Trump bend on probes MORE and the Justice Department can appoint and pick a special counsel when they believe further criminal investigation is warranted and set the prosecutor’s jurisdiction.

Holder has already launched a criminal probe into the IRS’s actions. He is also the same official the House held in contempt over the “Fast and Furious” controversy, the gun trafficking investigation that has angered many conservatives.

The attorney general has a famously rocky relationship with Issa as well – he blasted the Oversight chairman's behavior as “shameful” during a recent appearance before the House Judiciary Committee – giving GOP members even less incentive to pass the torch to the Justice Department.

“It scares me: Who will appoint the special prosecutor? Holder!” said Rep. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackLamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee Juan Williams: The GOP's worsening problem with women How to reform the federal electric vehicle tax credit MORE (R-Tenn.), also a Ways and Means member. “Do I really want the administration that I don’t trust appointing a prosecutor right now? I think not.”

To be clear, several GOP lawmakers believe that a special prosecutor will eventually be necessary, with Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget WANTED: A Republican with courage Companies warn Trump trade war is about to hit consumers MORE (R-Ohio) saying as much early this week.

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told The Hill that the Treasury inspector general who outlined the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups had made it clear that agency staffers weren’t exactly forthcoming. “So now how do you get those answers?” he said.

“As long as you have access to grand jury power and subpoena power, yes, that’s the way you investigate crimes,” added Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Democrats put harassment allegations against Trump on back burner Democrats seize on Mueller-Barr friction MORE (R-S.C.), himself a former prosecutor. “Congress is not well-equipped to investigate crimes.”

But GOP lawmakers also say progress is being made on the IRS case without a special prosecutor, even as they struggle to link the IRS’s scrutiny of the conservative groups to the Treasury Department or the White House.

House Oversight said this week that an internal IRS investigation found targeting similar to what was reported by Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration a full year ago. 

The Treasury report, released last week, found that the IRS gave added screening to groups seeking tax-exempt status with “Tea Party” and “patriots” in their name between 2010 and 2012.

Oversight and Ways and Means staff also have interviewed Holly Paz, an IRS official who revealed that she sat in on many of the interviews that the Treasury inspector general held with Paz’s subordinates – an arrangement questioned on both sides of the aisle.

Meanwhile, Camp told reporters on Thursday that the Treasury inspector general had started an investigation of the IRS’s screening of tax-exempt organizations.

The inspector general uses audits to recommend how to correct problems, while full-fledged investigations can look for criminal misconduct and can end with referrals for prosecution. Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration would not comment on whether an investigation had been launched.

“It took us eight months to start to get some answers on Benghazi. This IRS thing has been around three weeks. It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who chairs an Oversight subcommittee.

“It may come to that,” Jordan added about the prospects of a special prosecutor. “I’m certainly not dismissing that. It remains an option, but right now we’re just getting started.”

In fact, Jordan – one of several lawmakers who has said that Lerner misled him on this issue – even argued that the Justice Department is actually impeding Congress’s efforts to get to the bottom of the matter by launching a criminal investigation into the matter.

Lerner, through her attorney, cited the ongoing criminal probe as a key reason for her refusal to testify on Wednesday.

“Anytime this Justice Department is involved, I’m a little nervous,” said Jordan.

Erik Wasson contributed to this story.