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Mitch McConnell discusses IRS controversy, Obamacare and 2014

The Federal Eye on Wednesday caught up with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was unavailable the previous day for an article about Republicans stoking the fire of the IRS scandal with an eye toward the 2014 midterm elections.

To review what that piece covered, some GOP lawmakers have argued that the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups — an issue revealed in an inspector general’s report this month — is grounds for repealing President Obama’s health-care law, since the tax-enforcement agency will be in charge of implementing certain aspects of that policy.

In addition, the National Republican Campaign Committee on Tuesday hired mobile billboards to cruise through the districts of vulnerable House Democrats, displaying a message that those lawmakers would “Put the IRS in charge of your health care” — that one-day ad campaign earned Two Pinocchios from Post Fact Checker columnist Glenn Kessler.

To clarify, the IRS will be responsible for enforcing a mandate that requires all Americans to buy health coverage, and it will administer tax credits for those who can’t afford coverage.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

McConnell on Wednesday said the IRS controversy is just one more reason to do away with the health-care law, but not the only one.

“I was in favor of repealing Obamacare long before the IRS scandal,” he said. “It’s the single worst piece of legislation in a long time.”

McConnell added that the health-care law “has an overwhelming likelihood of being the most important issue of fall of 2014 campaign.”

Unlike the NRCC and certain Republican colleagues such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), McConnell did not suggest that the IRS would be in charge of Americans’ health-care.

“The role of the IRS will be significant,” the Senate leader said. “I don’t want to overstate it, but they are the enforcer. Regardless of whether they have access to individuals’ health records, they are the way the law will be enforced.”

McConnell’s comments represent a more diplomatic approach to the IRS-Obamacare issue compared to Bachmann, who earned Four Pinocchios from the Fact Checker for asserting that the law would give the IRS  access to the “most personal, sensitive, intimate, private health-care information.”

During his interview, McConnell reiterated sentiments he expressed last week in an opinion piece for the Washington Post, saying the IRS targeting campaign “goes well beyond one agency or a few rogue employees.”

“This is a culture of intimidation that has run throughout the administration,” the senator said Wednesday. “People are paying attention now that it involves an agency everyone understands.”

McConnell said he believes the Obama administration has also applied pressure against opponents through the Federal Election Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Labor Relations Board.

The senator said he does not support the calls for Congress or the IRS to clarify the guidelines that determine which groups that can qualify for tax-exempt status as 501(c)(4)s, also known as social-welfare organizations.

Some lawmakers, especially Democrats, have pointed during recent congressional hearings that federal law requires 501(c)(4)s to be “exclusively” dedicated to social welfare activities, while IRS regulations allow them to be “primarily” involved in such activities.

Under the existing rules, groups have engaged in limited political activities, particularly issue advertising, without paying taxes or disclosing donors.

McConnell did not directly answer whether the IRS should address the difference between its own regulation and the federal law relating to 501(c)(4) qualifications. Instead, the senator said he has no problem with the law as it is written.

“I know for many years, when liberal groups were doing the very same thing [with tax-exempt groups], we didn’t have any of these problems [with people questioning the guidelines],” the senator said. “For me, the issue is not how the law is written, but how it is being enforced by the administration.”

McConnell added that he does not think social welfare groups should have to disclose their donors, arguing that “We ought to err on the side of encouraging political speech instead of discouraging it.”

For the sake of balance, the Federal Eye will reach out to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for his thoughts on these same issues. Stay tuned for a potential follow-up.

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, friend his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.comE-mail with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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