Dems May Not Be So Willing to Back White House in IRS Scandal

As the IRS scandal piled on to the Obama administration's already mounting oversight problems, wary Democrats gave early indications that they may not stand in lockstep with the White House on its latest looming investigations.

And this even before news broke that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months' worth of Associated Press phone records, mortifying free-press advocates.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, on Friday called for a probe into IRS criteria used for nonprofit organizations. Today, as the storm grew over the IRS targeting of the Tea Party and other conservative groups, Levin and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, joined together to say that they are adding an investigation to oversight work already being conducted on their panel.

“The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has been for several months examining on a bipartisan basis whether the IRS has adequately enforced rules regarding the extent to which tax exempt nonprofit 501(c)4  groups engage in partisan politics," Levin and McCain said. "We had tentatively planned a hearing on that issue for June. After Friday’s announcement that the IRS, to the extent it has been enforcing the law, may have done so in ways that singled out some groups for special scrutiny, we have determined that the subcommittee should investigate that additional issue as well."

"As a result, we have decided to delay our hearing in order to examine this issue carefully. We will continue to work on a bipartisan basis to ensure the integrity of our political process and of enforcement efforts.”

The more conservative Democrats in the Senate predictably positioned themselves in the center of the aisle after the confession and apology from the Internal Revenue Service.

“It’s completely inappropriate for the IRS or any other federal agency to single out certain organizations based upon their politics,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). “The public expects the government to encourage the free expression of all sorts of ideas—not to target certain groups based upon their political affiliation. I already put the IRS on notice about snooping in private citizens’ emails and now this? Simply unacceptable.”

“The actions of the IRS are unacceptable and un-American. Government agencies using their bureaucratic muscle to target Americans for their political beliefs cannot be tolerated,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said today. “The president must immediately condemn this attack on our values, find those individuals in his administration who are responsible and fire them.”

But even Democrats on the more liberal side of the scale were sending signs that they won't be so willing to carry the water on this scandal.

"Reports of politically biased targeting within the Internal Revenue Service are deeply disturbing and should be treated seriously and decisively," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). "These accusations are outrageous and cannot be tolerated. Ideological discrimination is absolutely unacceptable and those responsible for it — including those who were aware of it and allowed it to happen — should be held accountable."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) used the same type of adjectives on the IRS that he usually reserves for colleagues' votes against gun-control legislation.

"There should be an investigation as promptly and effectively as possible. These allegations, if true, are clearly repugnant and reprehensible," Blumenthal said. "Such misconduct would violate the vital principle of IRS neutrality, and betray the trust and credibility of the agency."

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) called the inquiry "legitimate" but not the fact that right-wing groups were targeted for ideology.

"These 501(c)4s, and in order to be tax-exempt, in order for people to give them money and also not be disclosed who they are, the 501(c)4 has to spend at least 50 percent plus $1 on actual social welfare," Franken said on CNN today. "So, some of these organizations have been -- you know, it looks like they've been spending more on just pure politics. So, it's a legitimate inquiry by the IRS. What is in no way legitimate is that this be biased in any way. And the people responsible for this should be held accountable."

"Somebody made the decision that they would give extra scrutiny to this particular group. And I think we have to understand why," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press. "I don't understand why."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), on the floor of the upper chamber today, carefully tread the administration strategy of distancing the scandal from Washington when he said "the alleged actions of IRS employees in the Cincinnati field office are a terrible breach of the public's trust."

"Targeting any group based on its political stance is completely inappropriate. We need to get to the bottom of what happened here," Reid said. "In the meantime, no one should jump to conclusions. But rest assured, as soon as we have the Inspector General's report, the Senate will quickly take appropriate action."

Gaggling with reporters aboard Air Force One en route to a string of New York fundraisers today, White House press secretary Jay Carney said "the White House Counsel's Office was alerted in the week of April 22nd of this year, only about the fact that the IG was finishing a review about matters involving the office in Cincinnati."

Appearing at a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron this morning, President Obama said he "first learned about it from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this, I think it was on Friday."

"So we'll wait and see what exactly all the details and the facts are. But, I've got not patience with it. I will not tolerate it, and we will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this," the president said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) vowed to hold hearings into the IRS actions, and Reid said he has "full confidence in the abilities of Senator Baucus and the Finance Committee to get to the bottom of this matter and recommend appropriate action."

But the House Ways and Means Committee beat other committees to the punch, with a Friday morning hearing scheduled on "the Internal Revenue Service’s practice of discriminating against applicants for tax-exempt status based on the political leanings of the applicants." Acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller is on the witness list.

Obama hasn't filled the post since his first-term IRS commissioner, Douglas Shulman, left three days after his re-election.

J. Russell George, the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration who led the report against the IRS due out this week, will also appear before Chairman Dave Camp's (R-Mich.) panel.

Camp jointly announced the hearing with the committee's ranking member, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.).

“The American people must have the fullest confidence that organizations requesting tax exemption receive completely unbiased treatment from the Internal Revenue Service and are never singled out by name or political views," Rep. Levin said. "The nation deserves a complete understanding of this matter, and as Chairman Camp and I discussed this morning, it is essential that there be a thorough and bipartisan investigation and effective remedial action.”

Other Democrats on the House side joined in the condemnation, with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) telling MSNBC that "heads need to roll" if the IRS was singling certain political groups.

"If was targeting conservative groups for selective enforcement, that ought to be concerning to all Democrats and Republicans alike," Schiff said, though adding that Republicans ignored his call for a similar probe after a liberal church in his district was audited "in what looked like a very selective way."

"But I'm glad now that the GOP has found interest in this issue and it ought to be a bipartisan concern," Schiff continued. "The IRS absolutely should not be picking winners and losers or picking political ideologies. It ought to neutrally enforce its regulations regardless of the political point of view of an organization."