On a party-line vote, the House of Representatives held former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about the IRS targeting mostly conservative groups for detailed scrutiny of their applications for tax-exempt status.
After nearly a day of contentious debate in which Republicans alleged that the IRS scrutiny was retribution from the Obama administration aimed at its political enemies and Democrats charged that the Republican-sponsored measure was designed to rev up its supporters in an election year, lawmakers voted 231 to 187 to hold Lerner in contempt. Six Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the contempt charge.
Thursday's action refers the contempt charges to the U.S. attorney in Washington, who will determine whether to bring the charges to a federal court.
Shortly after the contempt vote, the House voted 250 to 168 to instruct Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS controversy. Twenty-six Democrats sided with Republicans.
'Conservatives were routinely targeted and silenced by the IRS leading up to the 2012 election,' House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said on the House floor. 'Those targeted were deprived of their civil right to an unbiased administration of law.'
House Democrats said Republicans were using Thursday's votes to further fan a controversy in a congressional election year. They noted that more than 39 witness interviews and thousands of pages of documents and emails have failed to prove that the IRS's activities were done under orders by the administration.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the oversight committee's ranking Democrat, said that although he, too, would like to hear testimony from Lerner he couldn't support holding her in contempt.
'A much greater principle is at stake here today - the sanctity of Fifth Amendment rights for all citizens in this country,' he said. 'I will not walk a path that has been tread by Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.'
Republicans claimed they had no choice but to slap contempt of Congress charges on Lerner. She refused to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and twice invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
House Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called yesterday's votes 'a waste of the people's time.'
'This resolution before us today is, of course, not meant to generate policy, it's meant to generate headlines,' Hoyer said. 'Republicans once again are showing that they a more interested in partisan election-year gimmicks than working in a bipartisan way to tackle our country's most pressing challenges.'