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Sparks will fly: House panel braces for heated IRS hearing

Yuri Gripas / Reuters, file

Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee hearing on December 6, 2011. Wolin was the Treasury official who learned about the investigation into the IRS in 2012.

Capitol Hill readied Wednesday for perhaps the most explosive -- or at least dramatic -- of the three hearings into IRS abuses of conservative and Tea Party groups in the past week, with one of the key witnesses expected to invoke her constitutional right to remain silent.

The Republican-controlled House Oversight and Government Reform committee was set to convene its own hearing on the revelations that the tax-collecting agency had singled out conservative groups for additional scrutiny in their applications for nonprofit status. Though the panel will hear from two of the same witnesses who appeared at hearings of the House Ways and Means Committee last Friday and the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, two witnesses who have not yet appeared before Congress could make Wednesday’s hearing into the most eventful yet.

Members of the U.S. Senate ask Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller about his knowledge of the department's alleged targeting of political groups.

Those two witnesses are Neal Wolin, a deputy Treasury secretary, and Lois Lerner, who oversees the tax-exempt division within the IRS. Wolin was the Treasury official who learned about the investigation into the IRS in 2012; Lerner was the official who planted a question at an American Bar Association conference with the purpose of disclosing the IRS’s targeting of conservatives in public for the first time and who is in charge of the agency’s division in charge of overseeing tax-exempt status for such groups.

In perhaps an ominous precursor for the hearing, Lerner’s attorney said Tuesday that her client would invoke her Fifth Amendment rights against having to offer self-incriminating testimony. She will still appear, though, to voice that claim.

The oversight panel has been one of the most doggedly critical of the White House, providing Republicans with an ideal platform to ding President Barack Obama and his team. The committee, for example, hosted a hearing earlier this month featuring whistleblowers that helped breathe new life into Republicans’ questions about the administration’s handling of last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

The two other witnesses, former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman and IRS Inspector General J. Russell George, featured Wednesday have appeared in previous congressional hearings.

Throughout these hearings, IRS officials have blamed “foolish mistakes” for the abuses at the IRS, but have denied that partisan motivations or influence from outside the agency fueled IRS officials’ targeting of conservative groups. That hasn’t stopped Republicans from insinuating otherwise; GOP lawmakers have spent much of the last two hearings probing whether the Obama administration had any role in directing the efforts to single out its ideological adversaries.

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