US President Barack Obama on Monday called the targeting of conservative groups by US tax officials “outrageous” and said that any Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees involved would be held accountable.
Obama’s comments, during a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, marked the first time the US president had spoken publicly about the IRS scandal.
The scandal was ignited on Friday when an IRS official revealed at a meeting of tax lawyers that the agency had inappropriately singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny of their claims for tax-exempt status.
As lawmakers in the Democratic and Republican parties expressed outrage on Capitol Hill on Monday, Obama — who said he first learned about the issue on Friday — said he had “no patience” for such actions by the tax agency.
“The IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity and people have to have confidence that they’re applying ... the laws in a nonpartisan way,” Obama said.
While making clear that he considers the IRS scandal a serious concern, Obama took a dimmer view of another issue dominating his administration’s time: the ongoing probe by congressional Republicans into the attacks on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September last year.
That has been a political “sideshow,” Obama said.
The Benghazi matter flared up again last week after internal e-mails were made public showing that in the days after the attack, the administration tried to shape “talking points” to explain why four Americans, including late US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, had been killed.
Obama rejected Republicans’ claims that the administration tried to cover up the role of Islamist militants in the attacks to avoid looking weak on terrorism eight weeks before the US presidential election.
Obama said Republicans have had political motives in criticizing him, his staff and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
For the White House, the political sniping over Benghazi combined with the new flap over the IRS has placed it on the defensive, just as the administration is trying to bounce back from failing to get a gun-control bill through US Congress and continues to wrangle with Republicans over budget and deficit issues.
“This will be another issue that takes the administration way off message,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “There’s no way they can punch through with a positive agenda while investigations of the IRS are going on.”
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a favorite of the Tea Party movement and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, called for the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller on Monday
Obama’s fellow Democrats joined Republicans in calling for there to be consequences for those responsible for the IRS targeting, which began in 2010, shortly after the emergence of the Tea Party movement that helped Republicans win control of the House that year.
US Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, promised an investigation by his panel. Republicans in the House of Representatives had already announced they would launch their own investigation.
The US House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on the issue on Friday.
“We must take appropriate action, without any delay or hesitation, to ensure that the IRS remains an impartial agency for America’s taxpayers and our nation’s families and businesses,” House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.
Obama added that the US Office of the Inspector General was investigating the controversy, which focuses on the IRS’ office in Cincinnati, Ohio.
That office was tasked with examining whether non-profit advocacy groups that claimed to qualify for tax-exempt status were granted it.
To qualify for tax-exempt status, groups must limit their activity to advocating for issues or causes, and avoid endorsing political candidates.