What and when administration officials knew about the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups for excessive, often burdensome, scrutiny will monopolize the hot seat this week at two more congressional hearings where lawmakers hope to determine whether the scandal extended beyond the agency's Cincinnati branch.
On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee will hear testimony from Steven Miller - the acting IRS commissioner wholast week at the behest of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew; Douglas Shulman, the George W. Bush-appointed IRS commissioner who preceded Miller; and J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration whose report last week at the helm of the controversy. Miller and George appeared Friday at a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Lois Lerner - an IRS official in charge of oversight of tax-exempt groups, who admitted to and apologized for the agency's conduct before a planted inquisitor May 10 - will testify Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee. Lerner last week cancelled her commencement address at her alma mater, Western New England University Law School, because she predicted her presence would be a distraction.
A timeline released in George's report showed the IRS in the spring of 2010 began singling out tax-exempt applicants that had "Tea Party," "Patriot" and "9/12 Project" in their names for unnecessary levels of review. Two Cincinnati-based employees haveand are "off reservation," according to a congressional source, but while the agency initially insisted no senior staffers were aware of the targeting, the IG report alleges Lerner knew about it as early as June 2011.
Republicans, and even the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., have called on Lerner to resign. Several took to the airwaves Sunday to eagerly peddle the ordeal as yet another "scandal" for President Obama to shelve alongside ongoing questions about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department's seizure of two months' worth of Associated Press phone records.
"This is arrogance of power, abuse of power, to the nth degree, and we're going to get to the bottom of this," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. - chairman of the House Budget Committee and the GOP's last vice presidential nominee - said of the controversy on "Fox News Sunday."
There is "credible evidence that donors were targeted, that the IRS leaked private information to the public, which served political purposes," Ryan said, "so there's so much more that we have just uncovered that we do not know the root causes of. And so to suggest that this is some bureaucratic snafu, that's been disproven."
Charging the president with cultivating a "a culture of cover-ups and intimidation" at the White House, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas - the chamber's No. 2 Republican -that it's "implausible" the president or some other high-level official at the White House , despite White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer's insistence earlier on the program that Mr. Obama became aware only recently.
"What we do know is that Secretary Lew, the Treasury Secretary, shortly after he was confirmed in March, said he knew about this," Cornyn said, "and the president himself said he didn't learn about it until May 11th when he read it in the newspaper. That's either evidence to me of somebody not doing their job, or the kind of willful ignorance I alluded to earlier, or trying to cover things up."
With Miller already gone, Cornyn predicted more high-level agency officials will also be forced to resign: "Bureaucrats don't take risks unless they have a signal - either explicit or implicit from their higher-ups - that what you're doing is exactly what we expect you to do," he said. "So, I have a very hard time believing that this was something cooked up in Cincinnati from mid-level employees at the IRS."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," shared Cornyn's assessment that "there is a culture of intimidation through the administration." The IRS fallout, he said, is "just the most recent example," and demonstrates "an attitude that the government knows best: The nanny state is here to tell us all what to do, and if we start criticizing, you get targeted," McConnell said.
"It's no wonder that the agents in the IRS sort of get the message," he continued. "The president demonizes his opponents."
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told ABC's "This Week" that even if the president's newly appointed acting commissioner, Daniel Werfel, conducts a month-long, top-down investigation, it's not enough: "I think special counsel is going to wind up being necessary," he said. On the same broadcast, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said it's "premature" to decide whether a special counsel will be required, but called the targeting practice "chilling" and vowed to "get to the bottom of it."
But Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. - one of the handful of Democrats who braved the Sunday show circuit - said on ABC that he doesn't see the need for a special counsel "at this point," and advised his fellow lawmakers to "look legislatively" at what can be done to prevent future mishaps. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., on the same program, called foul politicking, accusing Republicans of capitalizing on the news in an effort to "stop the president."
"It just seems to me there is no evidence that whatever went wrong it was known outside of Cincinnati," Rangel said. "They should have been better trained to deal with a very sensitive piece of legislation that was abused by the left and the right."
Bearing the brunt of the administration's response, Pfeifferthat "partisan fishing expeditions" like the amplifying IRS clamor won't "distract" Mr. Obama from doing his job. Conceding "it's inexcusable conduct that needs to be fixed" and was "an incredible breach of the public's trust" in need of repair, he said criticisms over the incident are straight out of "a Republican playbook."
"When they don't have a positive agenda, try to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped up hearings and false allegations - we're not gonna let that distract us and the president," Pfeiffer said, adding that the White House had no knowledge of the targeting practice.
"The first that the White House was made aware of it was from the Treasury Department a few weeks ago - and not the details of what happened, not the results of the investigation, but that an independent investigation was about to conclude," he said. "And this is how I think every administration tries to handle this: You have a cardinal rule, which is you do nothing to interfere with an independent investigation and you do nothing to offer the appearance of interfering in an investigation. So we, I feel like we handled this the appropriate way."
Also stopping by ABC, Pfeiffer said whether or not the IRS practice is legal or not is "irrelevant."
"What I mean is, whether it's legal or illegal is not important to the fact that the conduct doesn't matter," Pfeiffer said. "The Department of Justice has said they're looking into the legality of this. The president is not going to wait for that. We have to make sure it doesn't happen again, regardless of how that turns out."