Fight escalates over alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups

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WASHINGTON -- A long-simmering battle over whether the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny with political intentions has heated up again in Congress.

A House hearing erupted into shouts of frustration and recrimination Wednesday in a scene reminiscent of the early days of the probe into the IRS activities.

There again was former IRS official Lois Lerner, who last year invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, declining once more to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. On Wednesday, she again invoked the Fifth Amendment, ending days of speculation over whether she would testify after being subpoenaed.

The shouting began as a clearly frustrated committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., adjourned the hearing, and the equally annoyed ranking Democrat, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings objected. "Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this," he said. After his microphone was cut off, Mr. Cummings shouted: "I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America. I am tired of this."

He also described Mr. Issa's investigation into the IRS matter as "one-sided" and "absolutely un-American."

"We had a hearing," Mr. Issa replied. "It was adjourned. I gave you an opportunity to ask your questions. You had no questions."

After lawmakers spent months last year lobbing charges and countercharges, the IRS controversy appeared to quiet down. But what had seemed on same days more like a political food fight than a focused bipartisan probe is blowing up again, this time with two pivotal factors looming. Besides the approaching midterm elections, there is controversy over a Treasury Department proposal to restrict political activities of nonprofit groups with 501(c)(4) tax status, or so-called social welfare organizations.

These organizations have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into election-related ads since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which said the government cannot restrict independent political expenditures from certain types of groups. The IRS has said its woes partly stemmed from being overwhelmed by applications from such groups and a lack of clarity on how to deal with them.

Republicans, though they have not proven a political link to the White House, believe the IRS scrutiny was an Obama administration bid to silence conservative critics. Democrats have said the problems were nothing more than hapless bureaucratic fumbling and missteps. They have also uncovered evidence that progressive groups were targeted for intense scrutiny.

Now, the Treasury's proposed rules have caused a firestorm of their own. The draft guidelines would define a set of "campaign-related political activities" that could disqualify groups from tax-exempt status, but the draft rules put voter-registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in that category.

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