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The Senate Republican leader, who last year accused the Obama administration of Nixon-style dirty tricks, said Friday the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups is part of a broader government assault on free speech.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky seized on the spate of controversies besetting the White House, saying Americans are recognizing a pattern of attack on First Amendment rights across government agencies, the administration, President Barack Obama's congressional allies, left-wing groups and public employee unions.
"As serious as the IRS scandal is, what we're dealing with here is larger than the actions of one agency or any group of employees," McConnell, who is up for re-election next year, said in a speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "This administration has institutionalized the practice of pitting bureaucrats against the very people they're supposed to be serving, and it needs to stop."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the charge leveled by McConnell was "demonstrably bogus."
"As I'm sure the minority leader in the Senate is aware, the independent inspector general has testified and has made clear in his report that he has found no evidence that anyone outside of the IRS had any involvement in the inappropriate targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status," Carney said.
Speaking to the same organization last year, McConnell accused the administration and Obama's re-election campaign of leaking tax information and maintaining an enemies list in a chilling style reminiscent of President Richard Nixon, the Republican who resigned in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal. McConnell's criticism was largely dismissed as election-year hyperbole.
In the first six months of Obama's second term, the administration's problems have produced an assortment of political targets for Republicans. One is the IRS affair, which has resulted in resignations and departures from the agency. So far, no evidence has come to light that anyone in the Obama administration outside the IRS was involved in targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
Other issues facing the Obama administration this year include government surveillance of phone and Internet records; its handling of last year's terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans; the Justice Department's seizure of phone records of journalists at The Associated Press and, in another case, reading the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen.
McConnell referred to the IRS episode with a bit of I-told-you-so.
"When I warned about all this last year, I got slammed by the usual suspects on the left. They said I was full of it," he said. "But even some of them now seem to realize that just because McConnell is the one pulling the alarm doesn't mean there isn't a fire. The IRS scandal has reminded people of the temptations to abuse that big government, and its political patrons, are prone to. People are waking up to a pattern here."
In comments certain to appeal to Republican voters, McConnell described public sector unions as power hungry and able to expand their reach with the help of congressional friends. He said the unions no longer serve the public's interest but rather serve the government's.
"There's no better illustration of this than the announcement this week that in the midst of congressional hearings into their activities, unionized employees at the IRS are about to get $70 million in bonuses," McConnell complained.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said earlier this week that the IRS plans to hand out $70 million in bonuses to employees. Under a contract with the employees' union, IRS workers can receive individual performance bonuses of up to $3,500 a year.
In response to Grassley's criticism, the agency said it's under a legal obligation to comply with its collective bargaining agreement with the National Treasury Employees Union. The agency and the union say they are in negotiations over the matter.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.
Follow Donna Cassata at https://twitter.com/DonnaCassataAP