The House sidestepped a vote to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen Tuesday evening, handing a solid bipartisan rebuke to the Freedom Caucus and bringing to its end a months-long game of cat-and-mouse between the conservative group and GOP leaders.
On a vote of 342-72, the House voted to refer the motion to impeach to the Judiciary Committee, with more than two-thirds of Republicans joining forces with every Democrat in the chamber to stop the Freedom Caucus’s effort in its tracks. The vote essentially kills the motion, because Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and House leaders have shown little willingness to advance the measure due to disagreements about the severity of Koskinen’s punishment and the fact that Koskinen is unlikely to keep his job into the coming presidency of Donald Trump.
“To address these differences of opinion and to ensure this body administers due process in these deliberations, I recommend that the House refer this matter to the House Judiciary Committee,” Goodlatte said on the House floor.
The Freedom Caucus had brought up the motion twice before, only to drop it to give leaders and the House Republican Conference more time to deliberate. But on Tuesday, the group surprisingly resurrected its plan, despite arguments from House leadership that doing so would imperil the repeal of Obamacare next year.
Rep. Mark Meadows said the group was moving ahead despite the fact that GOP leadership had relayed to him that doing so would tie up the Senate well into 2017, because if the motion had passed, the Senate would have had to take it up, and the motion carries over into the new Congress.
That, leaders argued, would take up valuable floor time they plan to spend debating a repeal of President Obama’s signature health care law. That argument, however, did not sway the group.
Some in leadership and many GOP members believe the impeachment motion goes too far and sets a dangerous precedent for impeaching administration officials for conduct that does not rise to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as the Constitution specifies.
The Freedom Caucus, of course, disagrees. The group’s outgoing chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan, who brought up the motion, said Congress should hold Koskinen accountable for allegedly obstructing an investigation into misconduct by former IRS official Lois Lerner.
“Under his watch, with subpoenas and preservation orders in place, John Koskinen not only allowed 422 back-up tapes containing as many as 24,000 Lois Lerner emails to be destroyed—he then failed to tell Congress about it in a timely manner,” Jordan said in a statement. “John Koskinen has been able to get away with stonewalling Congress, obstructing justice, and breaching the public trust. It’s time that Congress held him accountable for his actions.”
Democrats and some Republicans, on the other hand, see the allegations as wholly unfounded. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer noted in a statement that referring the measure to committee means it will die at the end of this Congress.
“I find it shameful that the House even considered such a step without any evidence of wrongdoing and for purely partisan motivations that even a majority of Republican members opposed,” Hoyer said. “An overwhelming majority of the House demonstrated that spurious accusations and partisanship are not enough to remove a political appointee from office. Only real evidence of wrongdoing should be the basis for such a step as impeachment.”
Adding to the intrigue is the incoming Trump administration. The president-elect is under IRS audit, which he cited as a reason not to release his tax returns during the campaign. Although it seems highly unlikely he would keep Koskinen in his administration, members of the Freedom Caucus believed that by holding the impeachment vote now, they could have saved Trump from the perceived impropriety of firing the head of an agency that is investigating him.
That may explain in part why Democrats voted unanimously to refer the motion to committee, even though they roundly believe that Koskinen should not be impeached. Although the prospect of Republicans tying themselves in knots early next year was surely attractive, Democrats may see more political value in hammering Trump for his audit.
“The House Freedom Caucus is doing President-elect Trump’s dirty work for him,” said Caroline Behringer, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “Breaking from their own leadership and regular order, the Republicans’ latest quest to impeach the IRS commissioner comes as the President-elect remains under audit by the IRS.”
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