Republicans turning up the heat in IRS probe

The Internal Revenue Service Building is shown July 22, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee, Getty Images

The Republican-led House this week plans to take up one of the most politically-charged issues before Congress with two votes relating to the way the IRS unfairly targeted certain tax-exempt groups.

On Wednesday, the House will vote on whether to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Later, the House will vote on a resolution calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS targeting.

The House Rules Committee on Tuesday evening approved the resolutions for a floor vote after a lengthy, partisan debate.

"The American people are very concerned their government has targeted individual citizens for harassment on the sole basis of their political beliefs," Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told the Rules Committee, making the case for the resolution calling for Holder to appoint a special counsel.

Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., made the case for the contempt vote against Lerner, reminding his colleagues that when Lerner appeared before the Oversight Committee, she gave an opening statement before invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The only relevant questions ahead of the contempt vote, Issa said, are "did a committee issue a lawful subpoena, did she respond... did she assert her Fifth Amendment rights properly, and did she stick to them?"

A few Democrats, meanwhile, appeared before the Rules Committee to charge that the two votes amounted to political grandstanding.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said that it was "almost comical" to suggest appointing special counsel, given that the Justice Department is still investigating the IRS. Furthermore, she said that if Republicans wanted Holder to appoint a special counsel, they could simply write him a letter to make the request, rather than using up time and resources to hold a vote on the House floor.

She called the vote "pure political theater" and an "unfortunate charade" designed "to get C-SPAN coverage."

As for the contempt vote, Lee and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, noted that dozens of independent legal experts have concluded the contempt proceedings are constitutionally deficient.

Cummings said that before the matter goes before the full House, there could at least be congressional hearings to explore whether it meets constitutional standards. Failing to do that not only undercuts the legitimacy of the resolution itself but jeopardizes the Fifth Amendment protections of all Americans in the future, Cummings said.

"This is about people's constitutional rights, and we have to guard those rights," he said.

The Democrats present also stressed that while the IRS did inappropriately target certain groups, its actions weren't politically motivated. Lee noted that it wasn't just conservative groups that were targeted, but also groups with words like "occupy" or "progressive" in their names. Cummings, meanwhile, released several partial transcripts from interviews with IRS employees that suggest the targeting was not politically motivated, nor was it directed from the White House involvement.

Meanwhile, while the full House considers the contempt charges against Lerner, a Ways and Means Committee subpanel on Wednesday is holding a hearing on the IRS and the 2014 tax return filing season. The subpanel is hearing from IRS chief John Koskinen.

"The IRS has a long way to go in restoring public trust after the unprecedented targeting scandal," subpanel chairman Charles Boustany, R-La., said in a statement. "Beyond that, I am concerned about the agency's ability to effectively deter waste, fraud, and identity theft, as well as its new role in the President's troubled health care law, and the billions of taxpayer dollars it must administer in the Exchanges."

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