By Patrick Temple-West
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans on Thursday again targeted a former senior Internal Revenue Service officer for legal action, squeezing another day of Capitol Hill drama from last year's so-called IRS Tea Party controversy.
A Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives panel voted 21-12 along party lines to hold Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress over her role in the scandal, involving IRS targeting of conservative political groups.
Once the head of the IRS's tax-exempt division, Lerner twice exercised her constitutional right not to testify about the affair before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at public hearings.
Republican committee members voted to approve a contempt resolution against Lerner, sending it to the full House for further consideration. Democratic members voted against it, with one leveling some sharp criticism.
"I cannot cast a vote that would place me on the same page of the history books as Senator Joseph McCarthy," said Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings at a committee hearing, comparing Republicans' treatment of Lerner to the 1950s Communist witch hunts of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Republican committee Chairman Darrell Issa said at the hearing, "I am concerned that Ms. Lerner violated the law ... It would be irresponsible for the committee not to vigorously pursue her testimony."
On Wednesday, another Republican-controlled House committee voted, also on party lines, to ask the Justice Department to consider criminal prosecution of Lerner over the same matter.
As part of its required review of applications for tax-exempt status from politically active groups, the IRS applied extra scrutiny in recent years to groups with the words 'Tea Party' in their names, as well as some progressive groups.
Lerner triggered a scandal over this in May 2013 when, in answer to a planted question from the audience at a legal conference, she publicly apologized for what she called "inappropriate" targeting of conservative political groups.
Her unexpected statement set off a firestorm of accusations by Republican politicians that the IRS had targeted conservatives for unfair treatment. Investigations ensued and the acting chief of the agency lost his job over the matter.
The committee's inquiry quickly took on political overtones, with Republican lawmakers and staff investigators trying to link the White House to the IRS's conduct, but without success.
Lerner retired from the tax agency in September 2013.
Her attorney William Taylor said in an emailed statement that the contempt vote was the latest Republican effort "to keep the IRS story alive through this fall's mid-term elections."
He said, "Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong. She did not violate any law or regulation. She did not mislead Congress. She did not interfere with the rights of any organization to a tax exemption ... There is not a court in this country that will hold Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress."
The timing for a vote by the full House on the committee's contempt resolution was uncertain, a Republican committee staffer said.
House Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday that the House will cite Lerner for contempt if she continues to remain silent.
By law, an official charged with contempt by the House can be punished with a fine or jail. But no charges have been brought against the few people held in contempt in recent years, including Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012, said Raymond Shepherd, a lawyer and former congressional investigator.
The committee's vote "is probably not enough to overcome Lerner's concerns about waiving her Fifth Amendment protections," said Shepherd, now with law firm Venable LLP.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Chris Reese, Bernadette Baum and Eric Walsh)