WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday to hold Lois Lerner — a former official of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), accused by Republicans of abusing power — in contempt, laying bare the bitter divide over which much of the midterm elections will be fought.
It was a moment of high drama, complete with allegations that the White House orchestrated a Watergate-style cover up that helped steal a presidential election, along with invocations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his delusions of a huge conspiracy.
Republicans spent much of the day laying out a case for why the Obama administration is politically corrupt and, by extension, why Democrats could not be trusted with power.
In doing so, Republicans revealed the issues that, in addition to unhappiness with the Affordable Care Act, will form the legs of the stool on which their campaign strategy will rest.
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Republican leaders hope that with the series of events they set in motion with the vote, which passed 231-187 along party lines, they will expose a pattern of cover-up and political whitewashing by the White House.
Separately, the House approved a resolution calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that the IRS targeted tea-party groups.
Then there are the accusations of a cover-up. On Thursday the House is expected to approve a resolution to establish a select committee to investigate the fatal 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Republicans accuse the White House and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, of repeatedly lying about what set off the killings, as well as the United States’ response to them.
But Republicans have raised a delicate set of questions and opened themselves up to accusations that they are politicizing a tragedy that cost four Americans their lives and are misusing congressional oversight authority for gain in an election year.
Democrats have dismissively branded this “conspiracy week” and said that what Republicans really want to do is damage Clinton ahead of 2016 should she decide to run for president.
“They have to rough her up,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “If Hillary announced definitively tomorrow that she had no interest in running for president, I think Benghazi would disappear.”
Lerner’s lawyer, William Taylor III, said: “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 midterm elections.”
Republican leaders seem sensitive to that criticism, and they insisted Wednesday that their interest lay only in exposing the truth of a large, administration-led cover-up.
“This is not going to be a sideshow. This is not going to be a circus,” House Speaker John Boehner said. Then, his voice rising in anger, he went through the list of investigations that conservatives have pursued to frustratingly inconclusive ends.
“When is the administration going to tell the American people the truth? They’ve not told the truth about Benghazi. They’ve not told the truth about the IRS,” he said. “One would have to guess, if they’re not willing to tell the American people the truth, it must not be very pretty.”
Democrats mocked their Republican colleagues. “It is a circus,” said Rep. Jackie Speier of California. “Psychologists will tell you that when somebody says something is not, it clearly is.”
Before the vote on Lerner, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., listed what the investigation has yielded so far: $14 million spent by the IRS responding to a stream of requests for Congress and hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. “After all of that, we have not found any evidence of White House involvement,” he said. “I will not walk a path that has been treaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”
Republicans, however, are not the first to use the contempt process in Congress to go after their opponents. In 2008, the House, then led by Democrats, held President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, and his counsel, Harriet Miers, in contempt in connection with an investigation into whether certain Justice Department lawyers were removed for political reasons.
More recently, through multiple congressional investigations, Republicans have sought to link Obama and his former secretary of state, Clinton, to a politically motivated effort to obscure what happened in Benghazi.
Parallel investigations on Capitol Hill have tried to show that the president and his aides used the IRS to persecute tea-party groups in the hopes of muting their political effectiveness during the 2012 elections.
Republicans, however, found themselves on the defensive about why they have attempted to raise campaign funds by invoking Benghazi. The National Republican Congressional Committee has solicited money through petition called “Benghazi Watchdog” on its website, which urges, “Let’s go after Obama and Hilary Clinton,” misspelling her first name.
On Wednesday, Republicans focused on Lerner’s refusal to answer lawmakers’ questions before Congress. “The only route to the truth is through the House of Representatives and compelling Lerner to answer our questions,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
Rep. Darrell Issa of California, was more muted. “It’s disappointing things have come to this point,” he said.