WASHINGTON – Maine’s U.S. House and Senate members agreed Wednesday that the Internal Revenue Service overstepped its bounds by subjecting conservative groups to more scrutiny, but differed on whether the inquiries were politically motivated.

The scandals dominating discussion on Capitol Hill this week appear to have created something rare in Congress: bipartisan criticism of the Obama administration.

Republicans and Democrats have called for congressional investigations into the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups and the Department of Justice’s subpoenas of phone records for reporters working in Washington.

Maine senators Susan Collins and Angus King have been vocal on the IRS scandal, which erupted late last week after officials acknowledged that some groups with the words “tea party” and “patriot” in their names had their applications for nonprofit status held up by the IRS.

Collins, a Republican, said earlier this week that “heads really should roll” in the tax agency and expressed skepticism that only “a couple of rogue IRS employees” were responsible.

She sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew this week demanding answers about who knew of the additional scrutiny on some groups, when they knew and how the review process played out. She wrote that the incidents “appear to be part of a larger pattern of questionable activity by the administration that seems intended to hinder or chill the expression of views critical of the administration.”

King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said targeting certain groups was wrong but he did not necessarily believe it was politically motivated. He said he believes the IRS chose a “very clumsy way of trying to take a shortcut” to try to figure out whether organizations were political organizations or tax-exempt “social-welfare” groups.

King said the situation underscores a major flaw in the enforcement of campaign finance laws that allows clearly political groups to register as social-welfare organizations, which are not required to disclose their donors.

“This whole designation has been terribly abused over the past five or six years by both sides,” King said in an interview. “And it has become a gigantic loophole in the campaign finance system that has allowed a lot of anonymous money to be spent in campaigns because the IRS hasn’t been policing it sufficiently. What they did by identifying certain groups is wrong. But there are two scandals here.”

Maine’s House members — Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree — were also critical of the IRS and the Justice Department’s decision to subpoena two months’ phone records for Associated Press reporters over national security leaks.

Michaud said he would support a congressional inquiry into the IRS and the Justice Department’s subpoenas of journalists’ phone records.

“These actions deserve a critical review, and investigations by both law enforcement and Congress are clearly warranted,” Michaud said in a written statement. “A federal agency targeting organizations based on ideology is outrageous and unacceptable. “

Pingree also condemned the reported activities. “A free press and free exercise of political speech are two of most basic values of this country and it’s outrageous if either the IRS or the Justice Department is doing anything to suppress those basic rights,” Pingree said in a statement.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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