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Roll Call

IRS Scandal Falls Right in McConnell's Wheelhouse

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
On Thursday, McConnell found himself flanked by tea-party-backed Bachmann, left, and King at a news conference outside the Capitol.

Tea party conservatives may never fully trust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but the Kentucky Republican was talking about the dangers of limiting political speech long before the tea party movement existed.

An expansive view of the First Amendment when it comes to political speech has been a signature issue in McConnell’s Senate career. He led the crusade against the 2002 campaign finance overhaul championed by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin even after enactment, taking the case to the Supreme Court.

On the issue of the IRS targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny, McConnell’s world has collided with his critics’. It’s a situation that should work to McConnell’s benefit back home. On Thursday, he found himself flanked by tea-party-backed stalwart Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Steve King of Iowa as a featured speaker at a news conference outside the Capitol.

McConnell’s campaign apparatus promoted the appearance on social media as Democrats mocked it.

“Republicans including Senator McConnell hold a presser with the Tea Party today to make clear that the tiger has fully devoured the rider,” Senate Democratic leadership aide Adam Jentleson tweeted.

McConnell spoke after Bachmann and before his Kentucky colleague, tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul. Others in attendance included Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.

“These horror stories of the government attempting to quiet the voices of critics is apparently rather — rather rampant, and it’s interesting to note that the IRS apparently even gave to a left-wing group, ProPublica, information on one of the conservative groups before their tax status had even been established. This is runaway government at its worst. Who knows who they’ll target next,” McConnell said, noting he expected a full investigation on Capitol Hill. “The truth will come out. It always does.”

The hearings into the IRS matter kick off Friday in the House Ways and Means Committee, with the Senate Finance Committee jumping in early next week. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner.

Speaking on the Senate floor a short time after the tea party media event, McConnell announced that Republicans on the Finance panel would ask the Treasury inspector general for tax administration to investigate improper disclosures of pending applications for not-for-profit tax status. That request came in a letter from ranking member Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and his GOP colleagues.

“We are aware of no legal authority that would permit the IRS to disclose applications for tax-exempt status that are still under review by the IRS. In fact, section 6103 prohibits such disclosure,” the senators wrote. “Thus, we believe that disclosure of applications that are still pending is a violation of the Internal Revenue Code and other related provisions, which could result in civil and criminal penalties.”

“There is something profoundly un-American about targeting your political opponents,” Paul said at the Thursday morning news conference. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an independent in this country, to take the abuse of a $3.8 trillion government, the power of that government, and to use it to stifle opposition is profoundly un-American.”

Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party, said his members in the state are happy to see McConnell standing up for their interests but that this won’t deter them from encouraging a more conservative candidate to become a primary challenger.

“The only reason he’s coming out as strongly as he is is because it’s an election year,” Hofstra said. “On any other occasion, he wouldn’t be standing with Bachmann.”

However, McConnell gave a speech last June at the American Enterprise Institute about the issue, long before an IRS official apologized last week for targeting specific groups.

“Earlier this year, dozens of tea-party-affiliated groups across the country learned what it was like to draw the attention of the speech police when they received a lengthy questionnaire from the IRS demanding attendance lists, meeting transcripts and donor information,” McConnell said in the American Enterprise Institute speech.

McConnell and his aides have in recent days highlighted what they perceive as a lack of mainstream media attention to the original story, although CQ Roll Call had reported on it as early as March 2012.

Billy Piper, a former McConnell chief of staff who now works at the government consulting firm Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock, said that frustration from the right with McConnell likely comes from a small but vocal group of conservatives.

“There will always be some who will stand up and be frustrated, but I think any primary challenge at this point is a fool’s errand,” Piper said.

“It’s hard to imagine a legitimate primary challenge emerging when you’ve got traditional Republicans supporting McConnell, and then you’ve got Rand Paul offering his full endorsement,” Piper added. “I’m not sure how you overcome that.”

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