WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress Wednesday for refusing to testify about her role in the targeting of Tea Party groups.
The vote was 231-187, with six Democrats joining Republicans in favor of contempt.
The House also voted to call for a special prosecutor to investigate the affair, 250-168. At the same time, the House Rules Committee prepared for a vote Thursday to establish a Select Committee on Benghazi — ensuring that investigations of the Obama administration would dominate the House’s workweek.
Lerner has twice refused to answer questions to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about her role in the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups. She repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Republicans say she waived that right when she claimed her innocence and answered a question.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of that committee, said a judge should settle the question.
“I regret that we have to be here today. If it is within my power, if at any time l comes forward to answer our questions, I’m fully prepared to hear what she has to say, and I will ask that the criminal charges against her be dropped,” Issa said. “It may not be within my power after today.”
Democrats said the Republican-led committee “botched” the contempt proceedings and tried unsuccessfully to send the contempt resolution back to committee.
“I am not defending Ms. Lerner. I wanted to hear from her,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “I have questions about why she was unaware of the inappropriate criteria for more than a year after they were created. I want to know why she did not mention the inappropriate criteria in her letters to Congress. But I cannot vote to violate an individual’s Fifth Amendment rights just because I want to hear what she has to say.”
“Today’s vote has nothing to do with the facts or the law. Its only purpose is to keep the baseless IRS ‘conspiracy’ alive through the mid-term elections,” said William W. Taylor III. “It is unfortunate that the majority party in the House has put politics before a citizen’s constitutional rights.”
What happens next? Unlike a bill, a contempt resolution does not have to pass the Senate or be signed by the president. Under the law, the resolution is automatically referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, who must present it to a grand jury. Refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
The House of Representatives could also go to court to get a judge to order Lerner to testify. Or, it could send its sergeant-at-arms to arrest Lerner and bring her to the floor of the House for a trial, but Congress hasn’t used that “inherent contempt” power since 1934.
The vote comes almost one year after Lerner first admitted that the IRS held up applications for tax exemptions based on nothing more than the group having the words “Tea Party” or “Patriots” in their names. Answering a planted question at an American Bar Association conference, she apologized, saying, “that was wrong, that was absolutely incorrect, insensitive and inappropriate.”
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