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Senate set to grill IRS officials as White House seeks to clarify timeline

As the White House works to contain the political fallout over its knowledge that the IRS had targeted conservative groups applying for nonprofit status, the outgoing agency chief and IRS inspector general will join former Commissioner Douglas Shulman in an appearance Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee.

Republicans hope the hearing – along with a separate hearing before a House committee on Wednesday – will provide them new tinder to keep alive public outrage toward the IRS abuses, which has in turn helped offer the GOP a unifying moment in its opposition to Obama and his agenda. The disclosure of new details about when the White House first found out about the IRS misconduct was likely to arm Republicans with new information heading into those high-profile hearings.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior administration staff first learned about the details of the forthcoming report after April 24, when White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler was told about the report, which was still an unfinished draft.

An Andrea Mitchell Reports political panel previews the Senate Finance Committee's upcoming hearing on the IRS controversy.

“To be clear, we knew the subject of the investigation and we knew of the nature of some of the potential findings, but we did not have a copy of the draft report,” said Carney, who emphasized that no member of the White House staff sought to intervene with the report. “We did not know the details, the scope or the motivation surrounding the misconduct, and we did not know who was responsible.”

Those details speak to Republicans’ questions about whether Obama or other members of the administration knew about the IRS abuses sooner than they have let on. The witnesses at Wednesday’s House committee will feature two officials who could offer further detail. The first, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, will certainly be pressed on whether he shared his knowledge of the IRS investigation, about which he was first briefed in the summer of 2012. The second, Lois Lerner, leads the department within the IRS overseeing tax-exempt organizations, and has become an increasing target of criticism as lawmakers look to assign blame for the agency’s abuses.

But first comes Tuesday’s Senate hearing, which will be controlled by Democrats who enjoy the privileges of being in the upper chamber’s majority party. But that hardly means that the morning’s Senate Finance Committee hearing will be a cakewalk for the three witnesses.

Shulman, who served as IRS commissioner during much of the span in which the targeting of conservatives was said to have taken place, will make his first appearance before Congress since revelations of the controversy emerged earlier this month. Joining him will be Steven Miller, the IRS commissioner who was forced to resign last week, and J. Russell George, the inspector general whose report brought to light the charges against the IRS.

Both Miller and George appeared at last Friday’s hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee looking into the IRS scandal. But while Miller apologized for the targeting of conservatives, which he blamed on “foolish mistakes” by IRS officials, he defied Republican lawmakers’ suggestions that the abuses were deliberate, or fueled by partisan motivation.

That hasn’t stopped Republicans, though, from trying to use the IRS fiasco – along with simultaneous controversies involving the terrorist attack last year in Benghazi, Libya and revelations that the Justice Department had seized journalists’ phone records – to gain political traction against the Obama administration.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky cites examples of what he sees as political maneuvering by the Obama administration.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., said Sunday that the controversies amounted to evidence of a “culture of intimidation” being perpetuated by the administration. But he and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., the Ways and Means Committee chairman, admitted they had no evidence to support their insinuations that the president or his aides had ordered the extra scrutiny for conservative groups.

“We don't have anything to say that the president knew about this,” Camp said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

And new polling suggests that the public – so far – is inclined to believe that is the case. A CNN/ORC poll conducted toward the end of last year found that 55 percent of Americans believe that IRS officials acted on their own in the controversy, versus 37 percent who said they think the White House ordered the singling out of conservatives. Furthermore, 61 percent of Americans said in the same poll that they regarded what Obama as said in public about the scandal to be either mostly or completely truthful.

Republicans’ ability to undermine those numbers and build political momentum for themselves could depend upon their ability to unearth new revelations about the scope of the abuses during this week’s hearings. GOP lawmakers have made an issue of when Treasury officials and the White House counsel’s office were made aware of allegations of IRS abuses, though the administration has countered by pointing out that a House committee headed by a top Republican critic, Rep. Darrell Issa, Calif., was aware of the investigation into the IRS well before last year’s election.

It could be the case that Wednesday’s hearing, conducted by the Issa-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, could be the source of more explosive details about the IRS scandal, if more are to be known.

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