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Capuano says IRS flap reminiscent of Nixon administration

US Representative Michael E. Capuano

Globe File/2009

US Representative Michael E. Capuano

US Representative Michael E. Capuano on Monday said he was troubled by reports that the Internal Revenue Service had aggressively pursued conservative organizations, and called them reminiscient of the Nixon administration.

On the growing focus in Congress on the attacks on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya last year, Capuano said the death of four Americans there raised “legitimate questions.” But he said, based on the information available, he expected the issue to end up becoming “the typical right-left type of nonsense you see on one station, but eventually falls off the others.”

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He said the recent reports that IRS targeted small-government groups for extra scrutiny were in a different category. Asked to discuss the reports, Capuano said that if the accounts were true, “There’s no way in the world, I’m going to defend that. Hell, I spent my youth vilifying the Nixon administration for doing the same thing.”

President Richard M. Nixon attempted to wield his control of the IRS as a way of pressuring political enemies.

At a White House press conference on Monday, President Obama said he first learned of the IRS controversy from news reports.

A draft version of a Treasury Department’s inspector general audit has roiled Congress, where the notion that ideology could compel added scrutiny of tax records has drawn Republican ire. House Republicans have said they will investigate the IRS’s actions.

Capuano, a potential candidate for governor in 2014, decried a dysfunctional and sclerotic Washington D.C. in remarks this morning at a breakfast hosted by The New England Council, an alliance of business and nonprofits groups.

“We’ve been doing almost nothing but pontificating and posturing for this entire year,” the Somerville Democrat told a packed room of business, education and nonprofit leaders at the Hampshire House on Beacon Street in Boston.

Capuano, speaking off the cuff in his trademark brash style, did not use notes or a microphone and after about 10 minutes of remarks, answered questions from the audience. He never mentioned a potential run for governor until reporters asked him about it after the event. He didn’t say whether he was any closer to pulling the trigger on a statewide bid.

Though his remarks mostly steered clear of Democratic talking points, he did note what he said was the big difference between the current GOP-led chamber and when Democrats controlled the House.

“We had serious debates about serious issues. Maybe you didn’t like the health care bill. I understand that. But you can’t tell me it wasn’t an important debate,” Capuano said.

“In Washington, I hope that I am there when we wake up and have serious debates again,” he said. “In the meantime, to be perfectly honest, most of us are just suffering through, waiting to get to that day.”

Capuano said on a national level he was, indeed, an “unabashed liberal.” But, he assured the business-heavy audience, in comparison to the rest of the country, they were all liberals too.

“You don’t know it because you live here,” he said. “Move to Alabama, you’ll realize in a blink,” Capuano said to sustained laughter.

Capuano ticked through many of the issues in the news from the nation’s capital: partisan gridlock, the hearings on Benghazi, the IRS scandal and immigration reform, among other topics.

Capuano, first elected in 1998, said in recent years, he has seen more and more people elected on the promise of not compromising when they get to D.C. He said he doesn’t blame those members for fulfilling their promises, but doesn’t see eschewing compromise as a badge of courage.

On the prospect of a comprehensive immigration reform package becoming law, Capuano said “the chances are the best we have had in my life.”

After Capuano finished speaking, James T. Brett, president and CEO of the council, joked, “I just wish the congressman would tell us how he feels.”

In an interview with three reporters after his remarks, Capuano said he continued to ponder a bid for governor, but declined to hint if he was leaning more closely toward a statewide bid than he was a few months ago.

Capuano, who had considered entering the special election for Senate, said he expected his US House colleague Edward J. Markey to easily beat Republican nominee Gabriel E. Gomez.

“Eddie’s going to win this race going away. It’s going to be a much larger number than anyone thinks,” he said.

On the other big Massachusetts political race underway -- the one to replace Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino -- the congressman said he was “highly unlikely” to endorse any candidate.

“Several of them would, in my opinion, make great mayors,” he said.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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