Congressional Republicans are doing everything they can to keep two scandals alive for as long as they can.
The House voted 231-187 on Wednesday to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before House committees, in a party line vote that drew support from a handful of Democrats.
The measure marks the stiffest punishment thrown at an official involved in the IRS controversy since it was revealed, almost exactly one year ago, that agency staff improperly targeted tea party groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax exempt status.
Maintaining Lerner did not break any laws, her lawyer William Taylor said in a statement that “it is unfortunate that the majority party in the House has put politics before a citizen’s constitutional rights.”
The IRS scheme – which was not limited to targeting just conservative groups – is one of a pair of scandals Republicans are itching to keep alive through the upcoming election. The GOP continues to dredge up the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and plans on creating a special committee to investigate the administration’s response.
Democrats are mulling threats to boycott the Benghazi committee, but stopped short of fully committing. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings has led the Democratic effort against the GOP’s “reckless claims,” charging that both scandals are poorly veiled political plots, conveniently timed to align with the midterm campaigns.
“I am not defending Ms. Lerner – I want to hear what she would say,” Cummings said. “But I cannot violate an American’s Fifth Amendments right just because I want to hear what she has to say. I will not walk the path that has been tred by Sen. McCarthy.”
In a report released Tuesday, top Democrats cleared the White House of any involvement with the IRS controversy. The report made public excerpts of interviews given by 39 IRS and Treasury Department officials to provide evidence that Republican efforts to discredit the White House – led by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa – were were a political charade.
“Now that the American people can actually see what each one of these 39 witnesses told the committee – including even conservative Republican employees at the IRS – it is clear that there was no White House involvement or political motivation in the screening of tax-exempt applicants, contrary to the accusations made by Chairman Issa before we began this investigation,” Cummings said.
A second measure, demanding the Justice Department appoint a special prosecutor to pursue criminal charges for Lerner’s actions, passed 250-168 Wednesday.
The next step for Lerner will be a grand jury, convened by U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen, to determine whether she should be criminally charged for refusing to testify before House committees.
“We will carefully review the report from the speaker of the House and take whatever action is appropriate,” Machen’s office said in a statement.
The contempt vote wasn’t the first for House Republicans. Lawmakers staged a similar stunt against Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012 over the botched gun-running operation known as “Fast and Furious.” House Democrats marched off the floor in protest.
“When is the administration going to tell the truth? They’ve not told the truth about Benghazi, they’ve not told the truth about the IRS, they’ve not told the truth about Fast and Furious,” House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday morning. “Now only one would have to guess, if they’re not willing to tell the American people the truth it must not be very pretty.”