WASHINGTON - The Republican-led House voted Wednesday to hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions related to the agency's undue scrutiny of certain tax-exempt groups.
The vote to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress was 231-187, with all Republicans voting in favor and all but a few Democrats voting against.
It's now up to a local U.S. attorney to consider criminal charges against Lerner. The Justice Department, however, has ignored past contempt charges against executive branch officials, including contempt charges against Attorney General Eric Holder.
While the vote may have no practical impact, it does up the ante in the political bout between Democrats and Republicans over the IRS scandal.
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Republicans maintain they are determined to get to the bottom of the scandal and find out why IRS officials, starting in 2010, unfairly targeted groups for their political activity.
"All we're doing as Article One is saying an employee of Article Two, the executive branch, didn't properly assert her rights," House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., explained to his congressional colleagues Tuesday night in a meeting of the House Rules Committee. "We want Article Three, the federal court, to decide whether or not... we should be entitled to answers to some of our questions. ... Nothing could be less partisan than, in fact, to let the federal court decide."
In addition to holding Lerner in contempt, the House also voted 250-168 to approve a resolution calling on Holder to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS targeting.
Democrats have dismissed the GOP's aggressive pursuit of this issue as a partisan witch-hunt. They've noted that multiple investigations into the IRS have already been launched, including an ongoing Justice Department investigation. Democrats have also stressed that the IRS inappropriately targeted both conservative and liberal groups, while pointing to evidence showing the misconduct wasn't politically motivated.
On top of all that, Democrats assert there is no basis for the contempt charge.
The charge stems from Lerner's appearances before the Oversight Committee. At the start of one hearing last year, Lerner made an opening statement declaring her innocence before invoking her Fifth Amendment right. Republicans charge that by delivering her opening statement, she waived her rights against self-incrimination.
Republicans are "looking for scandal when there is no scandal -- and that is the scandal," Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., declared Tuesday evening during the Rules Committee meeting. "Ms. Lerner had every right to assert her Fifth Amendment right. When it is in court... you will find it will be dismissed."
Dozens of independent legal experts have also concluded the contempt proceedings are constitutionally deficient.
Democrats have also argued that holding Lerner in contempt of Congress could set a dangerous precedent for other Americans exercising their Fifth Amendment right.
"I am not defending Ms. Lerner," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, said on the House floor Wednesday. But "I cannot vote to violate an individual's Fifth Amendment rights just because I want to hear what she has to say. A much greater principle is at stake here today."