Republicans on a House committee rejected strenuous Democratic objections in voting Friday that Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner waived her constitutional right against self-incrimination at a prior hearing.
The resolution was the first step in an effort by Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the GOP chairman of the House Oversight Committee, to force Lerner to return to answer questions about targeting of conservative groups by the unit she headed.
It passed on a 22-17 vote, with every Republican in favor and every Democrat opposed, following an unusually vitriolic hearing.
Democrats accused Issa of a partisan witch hunt that threatened Lerner's 5th Amendment rights, while Republicans seethed at how Lerner had first declared her innocence before refusing to answer questions on constitutional grounds at the earlier hearing.
Issa's resolution is likely to set off a lengthy legal back-and-forth with Lerner and her attorneys that could include her eventual appearance at another hearing, where committee members agreed she would again assert her 5th Amendment rights.
That could then lead to efforts to cite her for contempt of Congress.
Lerner headed the IRS unit that targeted some conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny. Disclosure of the targeting in an inspector general's report in early May set off a political firestorm, leading to investigations by the FBI, congressional committees, the inspector general and the IRS itself.
Under subpoena to testify before Issa's panel on May 22, Lerner instead made a statement that declared she did nothing wrong, and then invoked her 5th Amendment right. Issa dismissed her, but warned the committee might call her back.
Friday's hearing was the first step toward forcing Lerner to appear again. If approved, Issa's resolution would set the stage for requesting her to come back and testify because she had waived her 5th Amendment right in the view of the committee.
"I believe Lois Lerner waived her 5th Amendment privileges," Issa said. "She did so when she voluntarily chose to deliver an opening statement" that included what he described as "four specific denials ....at the core of the committee's investigation into this matter."
Other Republicans called Lerner's actions an arrogant rejection of congressional authority.
"Lois Lerner is in fact the poster child for thumbing her nose, a federal bureaucrat thumbing her nose at Congress," declared GOP Rep. John Mica of Florida, later calling the matter "a showdown, really, in who's in control of the government and whether we honor the Constitution."
Democrats strenuously objected to the resolution, calling it a political gesture and asking for the committee to first hold a hearing on the legal basis for the finding that Lerner had waived her constitutional right.
Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts said Issa's resolution would hinder efforts to compel Lerner to testify if the matter ends up in court over an eventual contempt of Congress citation.
"I think what we're doing today will doom our effort to hold Ms. Lerner accountable," Lynch said, adding some Democrats would have supported Issa "if you did it properly."
Instead, "we have not had the meaningful, deliberate process that would give weight to our decision," he added, calling Friday's hearing "a political process."
Another Democrat, Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, called the "back-and-forth political bickering" at Friday's hearing "an embarrassment." He accused Issa of conducting "witch hunts" instead of seeking solutions to the problems at the IRS cited by the inspector general's report.
"These are the issues that the American people want us to focus on, not more partisan arguing and gridlock," Horsford said, adding that Issa's resolution does nothing to fix the improper targeting.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the elected House delegate from the District of Columbia, said she and other Democrats agreed with Republicans that Lerner's testimony would be vital to the panel's investigation of the targeting scandal.
"I hope we can find a way to get to the real point, perhaps by offering her some kind of immunity," Norton said.
Issa responded that the committee first had to take the procedural step of concluding Lerner's testimony from the May 22 hearing, which remained open. Only then could the panel try to strike an immunity deal, he said.
When Norton persisted in questioning Issa about the matter, he abruptly declared her allotted five minutes to speak had expired and moved on.
In another sharp exchange, Issa argued with Democratic Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts over a GOP memo that included a request that it not be distributed to all of the committee's Democrats to reduce the risk of it becoming public.
Tierney asked Issa which members he didn't want to see the memo, but Issa avoided the question and cut him off, saying, "The gentleman's time has expired."
"Well, the gentleman's excuse is lame," Tierney shot back.