Washington (CNN) - The Republican-led House Oversight Committee voted 21-12 Thursday to charge former IRS official Lois Lerner with contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about the agency's targeting of conservative and other groups. The vote sets up a full debate on the House floor, followed by possible court battle over the Fifth Amendment and a potential standoff with the Justice Department.
"This is not something that I take lightly,” said Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa of California. “We cannot tell the American people we have done all we can do to get to the truth in this investigation if we give a pass to a critical witness like Ms. Lerner.”
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Issa has spent nearly a year investigating why the agency used conservative political terms like "Tea Party" and “patriot” to flag some applications for tax-exempt status.
“What is this about?” asked Rep. John Mica, Republican of Florida, “This is about one of the most fundamental abuses I have seen in my lifetime. About trying to skew an election.”
Republicans believe that Lerner personally tried to block conservative groups, including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, from getting tax-exempt status when she ran the IRS division in charge of making tax-exempt decisions. The Republican investigation has sought to determine if White House officials were involved as well.
Democrats point out that liberal groups were also flagged by the IRS, with the the term "progressive" appearing on a watch list.
Lerner’s attorney responded quickly to the vote, calling it a political maneuver.
“The vote is the latest event in the majority’s never-ending effort to keep the IRS story alive through this fall’s mid-term elections,” said William Taylor in a written statement.
But some of the most fiery debate at the meeting was not about the investigation, but instead about Lerner’s own Constitutional rights.
“Ms. Lerner has invoked her Consitutional right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment and that’s it,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, “The end.”
The contempt charge hinges on Lerner’s refusal to testify before the committee, but Lerner did so while invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Democrats pounded away at that Thursday, comparing the Republican contempt motion to McCarthy-era intimidation tactics and insisting it has no legal standing.
“This contempt (charge)...this will be laughed out of court,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Lerner’s attorney agreed and was blunt in his written statement.
“Ms. Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment rights by proclaiming her innocence,” he wrote. “There is not a court in this country that will hold Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress."
Republicans fired back, saying Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment right by giving the committee a brief statement asserting her innocence.
“Lois Lerner did not remain silent,” said Rep. Cynthia Lummis, Republican of Wyoming.
The party-line vote Thursday pushed the debate to the full House floor where Republicans could hold a contempt vote as soon as the last week of April.
If the full House passes a contempt resolution, the charge would next go to the U.S. attorney for Washington D.C., who would decide whether or not to convene a grand jury on the matter. Issa said a federal judge could rule on whether Lerner’s Fifth Amendment right protects her in this case or not.