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House panel votes to hold ex-IRS official Lerner in contempt of Congress

A House committee voted Thursday to hold Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress, as Republicans escalated their bid to "get to the bottom" of the former IRS official's role in the political targeting scandal. 

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 21-12 to hold Lerner in contempt. The party-line vote followed hours of heated debate on the committee. 

The contempt measure heads next to the House floor. House Speaker John Boehner predicted earlier this week that unless Lerner agrees to cooperate, the full House will support contempt -- from there, the case would likely head to the courts. 

"This is not an action I take lightly," House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said before the vote. But he said lawmakers "need Ms. Lerner's testimony to complete our oversight work and bring truth to the American people." 

The vote comes a day after the House Ways and Means Committee voted to refer Lerner's case to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the committee claimed Lerner may have violated "one or more criminal statutes." The Department of Justice is not obligated to take up the committee's request. 

Both committee actions divided Republicans and Democrats, who have decried the steps against Lerner as unwarranted and political. 

Democrats argue that Lerner properly invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify last year, and again last month. 

"Guilty or innocent, Ms. Lerner has a constitutional right to remain silent on this issue," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said. Further, she said if the committee were truly serious about pursuing this case, they would offer Lerner immunity. 

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said the case would "be laughed out of court."

But Republicans, in bringing up the contempt measure, claim Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment right when, during a hearing in May, she gave a voluntary statement declaring her innocence. Lerner again refused to testify last month. 

"The only path to the truth is through this committee," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Thursday. 

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the oversight committee, has compiled a growing list of constitutional experts who say the contempt case is weak. Issa countered with a memo from the House general counsel's office that says he followed proper procedures. 

Lerner has emerged as a central figure in investigations by two congressional committees into the IRS applying extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Lerner's lawyer, William W. Taylor III, said she has committed no crimes. 

"If Lois Lerner continues to refuse to testify, then the House will hold her in contempt," Boehner said Wednesday. "And we will continue to shine the light on the administration's abusive actions and use every tool at our disposal to expose the truth and ensure the American people get the answers they deserve." 

Lerner is an attorney who joined the IRS in 2001. She retired last fall, ending a 34-year career in federal government, which included work at the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.