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In IRS abuses, GOP sees chance to regain stage

Details surface on targeting of Tea Party groups

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said the revelations eroded trust in the government.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said the revelations eroded trust in the government.

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service’s special scrutiny of small-government groups applying for tax-exempt status went beyond keyword hunts for organizations with ‘‘Tea Party’’ or ‘‘patriot’’ in their names to a more overtly ideological search for applicants seeking to ‘‘make America a better place to live’’ or ‘‘criticize how the country is being run,’’ according to a part of an inspector general’s report given to Capitol Hill.

The head of the division on tax-exempt organizations, Lois Lerner, was briefed on the effort in June 2011, seemingly contradicting her assertion on Friday that she learned of the effort from the press. But she seemed to work hard to rein in the focus on conservatives and change it to a look at political advocacy groups of any stripe seeking tax exemptions.

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The new information will only add to the criticism that has emerged since Lerner apologized to Tea Party and other conservative groups on Friday for unwarranted scrutiny. A lengthy audit from the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is set to be released this week.

House Republicans have vowed to begin their own investigations. And Republicans fanned out on the political talk shows to express outrage that is expected to grow.

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and a prominent moderate, said on CNN that the singling out of conservative groups was ‘‘absolutely chilling.’’

“This is truly outrageous,’’ she said. ‘‘And I think that it’s very disappointing that the president hasn’t personally condemned this and spoken out.’’

Since last year’s elections, Republicans in Congress have struggled for traction on their legislative efforts, torn between conservatives who drove the agenda after their 2010 landslide and new voices counseling a shift in course to reflect President Obama’s reelection and the loss of Republican seats in the House and the Senate.

For the first time since 2011, Democrats have been dictating Washington’s political agenda, including tax increases on the rich, gun control, and an overhaul of immigration laws.

But the accusations of IRS abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Obama and his administration. Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies.

“The bottom line is they used keywords to go after conservatives,’’ Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Sunday on the NBC program ‘‘Meet the Press.’’

Republicans got little political traction last year when they highlighted the ‘‘Fast and Furious’’ operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, in which guns that were supposedly being tracked by the agency were instead lost to drug cartels in Mexico.

But the Republican focus on attacks on US officials in Benghazi, Libya, resurfaced last week when Gregory Hicks, a State Department critic of the US initial assessment of the episode, told a House committee that he had been effectively demoted after lodging his criticism.

The IRS disclosures present Republican critics a golden opportunity. Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee in 1998 mounted a series of hearings on IRS abuse, featuring taxpayers who portrayed the agency’s tax collectors as overzealous thugs with no respect for due process.

In this case, House Republicans will take the lead. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, has promised a broad investigation, and Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said on Friday he would hold hearings soon.

The IRS has been under pressure from Democrats and campaign-finance watchdogs for some time to crack down on abuse of the 501(c)4 tax exemption, which is supposed to go to organizations primarily promoting ‘‘social welfare’’ but which is routinely granted to overt political groups.

But the inspector general’s timeline showed the effort to single out Tea Party groups goes back to March 2010, when a special Determinations Unit in the Cincinnati office of the IRS began searching tax-exemption applications from groups using the names ‘‘Tea Party,’’ “patriots,’’ or ‘‘9/12,’’ a movement begun by Glenn Beck.

The unit was also looking for ‘‘applications involving political sounding names’’ like ‘‘We the People’’ or ‘‘Take Back the Country,’’ according to the document.

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