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House bans IRS enforcement of health care law; Senate unlikely to agree

WASHINGTON — The Republican-run House of Representatives voted 232-185 Friday to bar the besieged Internal Revenue Service from enforcing or implementing the new health care law, but the effort was largely a political exercise.

The vote on the “Keep the IRS Off Your Health Care Act of 2013” broke largely along party lines, with 228 Republicans and four Democrats in favor and 185 Democrats opposed.

Most likely, the bill will go nowhere. Democrats control the Senate and the White House, and they’re not about to kill or dilute the 2010 law that President Barack Obama championed so forcefully.

Still, Republicans were determined to deliver a strong message as Congress left for a five-week recess. They pressed the issue on the House floor and at a raucous subcommittee hearing.

On the House floor, a vote that combined two of the party’s favorite targets — the IRS and health care — proved unusually inviting. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio summed up the Republican complaint: “The IRS has shown it cannot be trusted to implement the president’s train wreck of a health care law.”

The IRS has a vital role in implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, commonly known as Obamacare. The agency can act on 47 of the law’s provisions, including many of the more controversial ones. The law requires nearly everyone to obtain coverage next year or face a penalty.

The IRS has been under fire for months because it targeted for particular scrutiny some conservative groups seeking tax exemptions. Republicans have fought to dismantle the health care law. Friday’s House vote was the 40th attempt at repealing it.

During the fiery House debate Friday, Democrats offered their own summer talking point: Republicans are obsessed with the IRS and repealing the health care law, and they’ve done little to address more pressing issues such as a 2014 federal budget or an immigration overhaul.

“Call them the Repealicans, or perhaps the Repealican’ts, because they can’t repeal anything,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

But for Republicans, the IRS and the health care law symbolize what scares them most about Washington: big, expensive, out-of-control government.

“This is nothing short of an unwelcome big-government overreach into the most personal aspect of our lives,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.


Republicans are convinced that the furor over the IRS and the health care law will prove highly unpopular and will help them win congressional seats next year.

They sent members of Congress home for the recess armed with packets full of talking points and suggestions for news coverage, and Democrats are countering with their own initiative.

The partisan strife found a separate arena Friday. In an adjacent building, a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee held a hearing on identity theft that featured testimony from acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel. That session suddenly shifted gears when committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., arrived. Issa promptly denounced the IRS’ response to his investigation into the agency’s targeting of political groups.

“What I can’t understand is how you can think the American people can accept this,” he told Werfel, referring to Obama administration claims that Republicans have blown the issue out of proportion.

He accused Werfel of “slow-rolling” the investigation by redacting thousands of pages unnecessarily and failing to turn over necessary documents. He called the IRS’ legal department “compromised.” He pledged to send the Treasury Department a subpoena for many of the documents.

Issa stood over a stack of documents more than a foot high that he said had redacted material and were “impossible to figure out.” Issa also subpoenaed documents from the Treasury Department on Friday relating to the investigation.

Werfel countered that the law bars him from turning over taxpayers’ personal financial information to certain committees. That led to blacking out what he said were mostly personal case files. Issa warned him that the House Ways and Means Committee, which has the authority to review the sensitive information, will be looking for any unnecessary redactions.

Democrats came to Werfel’s defense. They said the agency had sent more than 70,000 pages of documents to Congress and seemed genuine in participating with investigations.

“Whether it’s progressive, whether it’s liberal, whether it’s conservative or anywhere in between, we simply want the whole truth,” said the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee’s top Republican, launched an investigation into IRS activity in May. They said Friday in an interim report that while the IRS had turned over more than 20,000 pages, they hadn’t yet received most of the relevant information.


©2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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