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Clinton And GOP: IRS Radio Duel

With the Senate poised to pass an overhaul of the IRS, President Clinton and congressional Republicans vied Saturday to claim credit and vilify the tax agency. It's "tone-deaf," said Mr. Clinton; "out of control," said a GOP senator.

In separate radio broadcasts, the president and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, pressed the Senate to approve a House-passed bill restructuring the Internal Revenue Service.

Mr. Clinton, who had earlier opposed the bill, indicated he was now eager to sign it into law. "I call on Congress to make this year the year we set aside political differences to enact real reforms of the IRS," Mr. Clinton said in his remarks, taped Friday.

"When it comes to quality service at the IRS, Congress can't afford to file for an extension," he said.

Grassley urged Americans to weigh in on next week's Senate debate on the bill. "Now is the time for each of us to stand up and demand change. Call your senators at once," he said.

Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, are in California for a weekend of Democratic fund-raising and private time with their daughter, Chelsea, a Stanford University freshman. Two policy-oriented official events in San Jose and Los Angeles helped defray the Democratic Party's costs of Mr. Clinton's cross-country travel.

The IRS legislation, which passed the House 426-4 in November, would make the most far-reaching changes at the agency in 45 years.

An 11-member board, composed mostly of private citizens, would be created to oversee the IRS, help develop a budget, and manage long-term projects such as upgrading the agency's computer system.

One taxpayer rights provision would primarily benefit the elderly or others suffering mental disabilities who fail to file for refunds within three years if they made a mistake on their returns.

Another would shift the burden of proof in court proceedings from the taxpayer to the IRS, as long as the taxpayer cooperates with IRS auditors.

Both Mr. Clinton and Grassley reacted sharply to revelations at this week's Senate Finance Committee oversight hearings into the IRS.

"Like most Americans, I was outraged ... by the stories of our citizens harassed and humiliated by what seemed to be an unaccountable, downright tone-deaf agency," the president said.

Grassley's view of the IRS: "Simply out of control. There is no accountability. And when there is no accountability, IRS agents can continue to abuse taxpayers' rights and get away with it."

The administration joined the IRS-overhaul bandwagon last October after similar Finance Committee hearings in September struck a chord with outraged Americans and suggested that the issue could be a winning one with voters.

IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti, testifying before the Senate panel Friday, cautioned that overhauling the far-flung agency and its work forc of 102,000 won't happen easily, or overnight.

"Change of this magnitude will take time, and there is no magic formula or easy solution that will quickly solve the IRS' problems and transform it into a quality-service organization," Rossotti said. "We will make progress ... but it will be step by step, over a period of years."

In four days of hearings, the committee heard tales of armed IRS agents raiding businesses and then failing to bring criminal charges. Several agency employees testified they faced retaliation from managers after attempting to report misconduct.

Charges of racial discrimination and sexual harassment were aired, as were allegations that corporations received multimillion-dollar breaks in tax disputes.

"American citizens have every right to expect that they'll be treated with respect by a government that works for them," Mr. Clinton said today. "A big part of our values as a people include courtesy, efficiency, and fairness from government."

Written by Sandra Sobieraj