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House GOP measure blocks IRS on political groups

Published: Tuesday, June 17, 2014 11:22 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — A GOP-controlled House committee unveiled legislation Tuesday to block the Internal Revenue Service from issuing new rules intended to rein in the use of tax-exempt groups for political campaigning.

The provision to stop the agency from placing restrictions on loosely regulated big-money political outfits such as GOP political guru Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and the pro-Obama Priorities USA was added to a spending bill funding the IRS budget. The House Appropriations Committee unveiled the legislation on Tuesday.

The IRS had already signaled it would delay issuance of the rules after a preliminary outline released in November sparked 150,000 comments, many from angry conservatives and tea party groups who said they were harassed by the IRS after seeking tax exempt status. Delays announced last month were interpreted by advocates on both sides of the issue as a sign that the Treasury Department and the IRS were headed back to the drawing board.

The restrictions on the IRS came a few days after the agency admitted that it had lost a trove of emails to and from IRS executive Lois Lerner, who's at the center of the agency's tea party controversy.

Lerner headed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. The IRS acknowledged last year that agents had improperly scrutinized applications by some conservative groups.

The IRS and the Treasury Department had said they wanted to prohibit groups from using "candidate-related political activity" like running ads, registering voters or distributing campaign literature as activities that qualify them to be tax-exempt "social welfare" organizations.

Under current rules, social welfare organizations may conduct some political work as long as it's not their main activity. The proposed new rules would block such things as running ads that "expressly advocate for a clearly identified political candidate or candidates of a political party" as fulfilling their tax-exempt mission. Ads that simply mention a politician to, for instance, urge him or her to vote a certain way couldn't be run 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary.

The rules also would limit voter drives and voter registration efforts and distribution of literature.

Congress passed a stand-alone measure to block the IRS from issuing the rules for a year. The Democratic-controlled Senate has ignored it.

Tuesday's legislation also would cut the IRS' budget by $1.5 billion below President Barack Obama's request, sending it to Bush administration levels.

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