By Peter Schroeder
Tempers flared as House Republicans pushed for cracks in Treasury Secretary Jack Lew's testimony over the ongoing scandal around the Internal Revenue Service.
Lew told the House Financial Services Committee that he became aware of an Inspector General investigation into possible targeting of conservative groups on March 15, and discovered the full extent of the improper practice when that report was made public earlier this month.
But Republicans insisted that Lew, who has served several years in the Obama administration and was most recently the president's chief of staff, could not have been oblivious to the matter until just recently. And they made their dissatisfaction with his timeline known.
"Is it malice or is it incompetence?" said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who suggested Lew could have flagged potential problems at the IRS for the president's reelection campaign.
"You're dodging me," said Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.). "The bottom line is you knew before the IG's report came out that the IRS was targeting Americans.
"It's evident that you knew before March 15," he added. "You don't want to lie before Congress!"
Duffy in particular was visibly agitated, practically yelling as he repeated the same question to Lew over and over: "When did you become aware that the IRS was targeting citizens?"
Duffy's questioning became so aggressive that Democrats complained to Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) that he was badgering Lew. Hensarling allowed Duffy's questioning to continue.
But Lew was resolute, maintaining that he only recently learned of the problems at the IRS.
He added that, even if he had learned of them as the president's right-hand man, he would not have done anything about it until the Treasury Inspector General had completed his report. He said it would have been improper for the White House to take action at the first inklings of problems before a proper, independent investigation had run its course.
"I didn't pay an awful lot of attention to the administration of our tax system, because it's not something I would have intervened in," he said. "Let's not get into the world where we have the White House jump into the administration of our tax system."
Any suggestions from Republicans that he knew anything beyond what he testified was false, Lew contended.
"You're creating a narrative that doesn't exist," he told McHenry.
For their part, Democrats on the committee sought to express their concern over the IRS's actions while protecting Lew from heated GOP questions.
"The only difference between overall our side, and their side, is that we're willing to give you the benefit of the doubt," said Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.).
As he told a Senate panel a day earlier, Lew maintained that the actions taken by IRS officials in tagging Tea Party groups for additional scrutiny were "unacceptable and inexcusable," and vowed to make rectifying the matter a top priority.
He told lawmakers that he would be meeting later Wednesday with Danny Werfel, who began work as the new acting commissioner of the IRS, following the resignation of Steven Miller.
He also emphasized that the report on the targeting found no evidence of political pressure to do so -- another claim that Republicans found hard to swallow.
"If somebody robs a bank, it is reasonable to conclude they did it for the money," said Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) "When someone targets organizations entirely of one political bent, it is reasonable to conclude that was the reason for doing it."
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) asked Lew if he agreed with the claim made earlier Wednesday at a separate hearing by the IRS official at the center of the scandal.
Lois Lerner, the director of the exempt organizations office at the IRS, told the House Overisght Committee that she did nothing wrong, before being dismissed for refusing to answer questions from lawmakers.
Lew did not directly answer whether he agreed with her assessment, and later said he has never met Lerner.
Lew was largely subjected to measured questions on the IRS scandal from Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday.
But he was under pressure almost immediately Wednesday in the House.
Hensarling pressed Lew on whether it was appropriate for the IRS to ask a conservative group about the content of their public prayers, or their Facebook postings.
When news of the targeting first became public, so did IRS documents requesting that information from groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Lew said he was not familiar with the specific documents in question, and could not respond then and there.