The IRS acknowledging that it targeted conservative political groups during the 2012 election season has sparked bipartisan calls for investigation -- with House Republicans already saying they will hold a hearing on the issue.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Friday the Republican-led chamber would investigate the tax-collecting agency for flagging the groups for additional review to see whether they were violating their tax-exempt status.
“The IRS cannot target or intimidate any individual or organization based on their political beliefs,” the Virginia Republican said.
Cantor’s comments were followed within minutes by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp saying he would hold a hearing.
The IRS on Friday apologized for targeting groups, but Camp, R-Mich., argued the agency had “repeatedly denied” such activity.
“The admission by the agency that it targeted American taxpayers based on politics is both shocking and disappointing,” he said.
The committee has jurisdiction over the IRS, but it remains unclear whether other House committees also will investigate the issue, in which roughly 300 groups were flagged.
Republicans were joined by a leading Senate Democrat in the call for congressional investigations.
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said members have already been looking into the IRS's failure to make sure tax-exempt groups engage only in social welfare activities -- not partisan politics.
“Today’s announcement by the IRS raises a second issue: whether the IRS, to the extent it has enforced its rules, has been impartial in doing so,” Levin said Friday. “Both issues require investigation.”
Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups, said that organizations were singled out because they included the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for tax-exempt status.
In some cases, groups were asked for their list of donors, she said.
"That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate," Lerner said. "The IRS would like to apologize for that."
Republican lawmakers appeared vindicated in part by the announcement, after complaining about the suspected harassment more than a year ago.
A dozen Republican senators wrote to the IRS in March 2012 to express concerns about various accounts that the agency inquiries were "perceived to be excessive."
However, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told Congress the agency was not targeting groups based on their political views.
"There's absolutely no targeting. This is the kind of back and forth that happens to people" who apply for tax-exempt status, he told a House Ways and Means subcommittee.
Among Capitol Hill Republicans already raising further concerns or calls for investigations are California Rep. Darrell Issa, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky; Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“The IRS’s political targeting of select groups based on their political leanings is reprehensible, and it should trouble every American to know that a federal government agency could abuse its power so outrageously,” Rubio said. “We need immediate congressional hearings.”
Lerner said the practice was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias. She said no high-level IRS officials knew about the practice. She did not say when they found out.
The IRS has put out a written statement saying protocol was changed at the Cincinnati office in response to the rising number of applications for so-called 501(c)(4) groups. This classification grants tax-exempt status to social welfare groups. Unlike other charitable groups, these organizations are allowed to participate in political activities but their primary activity must be social welfare.
The agents tried to "centralize work" in response to the applications, the IRS said, leading to problems the agency claims have since been fixed. Lerner said the number of groups filing for the tax-exempt status more than doubled from 2010 to 2012, to more than 3,400. To handle the influx, the IRS centralized its review of these applications in the office in Cincinnati. As part of the review, staffers look for signs that groups are participating in political activity. If so, IRS agents take a closer look to make sure that politics isn't the group's primary activity, Lerner said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.