WASHINGTON -- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) floated a new target for impeachment Thursday, calling for Attorney General Eric Holder to be drummed from office if he does not appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Internal Revenue Service's botched reviews of tax-exempt political groups.
The scandal erupted last year when the IRS's inspector general concluded that the agency had used "inappropriate criteria" to single out for extra scrutiny certain political nonprofit groups that had applied for tax breaks. Many of those groups were aligned with the tea party or were otherwise conservative, although at least a handful of progressive organizations were also included.
None of the congressional committees that have looked into the matter have found any evidence that the IRS's efforts came at the direction of the White House. Still, Cruz has claimed the existence of a Nixonian conspiracy, arguing that Holder's unwillingness to appoint a special prosecutor is proof of underhanded dealings.
"If Attorney General Eric Holder continues to refuse to appoint a special prosecutor, he should be impeached," Cruz said, attempting to offer a resolution on the Senate floor calling for such an investigator.
"When an attorney general refuses to enforce the law, when an attorney general mocks the rule of law, when an attorney general corrupts the Department of Justice by conducting a nakedly partisan investigation to cover up political wrongdoing, that conduct by any reasonable measure constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors."
Cruz based his allegations mostly on the fact that Lois Lerner, the former director of the division that reviewed tax-exempt applications, has twice asserted her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself in refusing to testify to Congress. He also noted the IRS's recent announcement that Lerner's hard drive had crashed and that some of her email was likely lost with it. On top of that, Cruz suggested that Barbara Bosserman, the Justice Department official looking into the IRS case, can't be trusted after having donated more than $6,000 to President Barack Obama's election campaigns and the Democratic National Committee since 2004.
It all adds up to something worse than Watergate, in Cruz's view.
"Attorney General Eric Holder has the opportunity to do the right thing. He could appoint a special prosecutor with meaningful independence who is not a major Obama donor," Cruz said. "And yet every time the attorney general has been called on to do this, he has defiantly said 'No.'"
"When a Republican president, Richard Nixon, attempted to use the IRS to target [his administration's] political enemies, it was wrong. It was an abuse of power and he was rightfully condemned on both sides of the aisle," Cruz continued. "Both Democrats and Republicans stood up to President Nixon attempting to use the IRS to target his political enemies, and said 'This is wrong.' The Obama administration didn't just attempt to do so. It succeeded."
Cruz needed the unanimous consent of his colleagues to move ahead with his resolution, but Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, refused, calling it a waste of taxpayers' money.
Wyden said that besides the three other probes being conducted by congressional committees, he and the top Republican on the finance committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), were nearly done with their own bipartisan investigation into the matter.
And Wyden appeared to bristle at Cruz's suggestion that Democrats like Wyden were doing nothing because the president is a member of their party.
"I want every United States senator to understand this -- Sen. Hatch and I would be doing exactly what we're doing now, with the same diligence, if it was a Republican administration," Wyden said. "That, in my view, is the bottom line because that's what bipartisanship is all about. That's the way an important inquiry ought to be handled."
He also questioned the need for a special prosecutor when no evidence has emerged of a crime.
"Many of us can remember special prosecutors abusing their power, spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money and going on for years and years without concluding their investigations," Wyden said. "Too often, special prosecutors have turned into a lawyer's full employment program. They ought to be reserved for where there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing inside the government."
UPDATE 6:30 p.m. -- IRS Commissioner John Koskinen addressed many of Cruz's charges in an interview on CNN Thursday afternoon. The commissioner acknowledged that the loss of Lerner's emails looked "suspicious," but said that the seven ongoing investigations would be more than sufficient to uncover any evidence of wrongdoing.
"Our responsibility is to find evidence, produce it to and share it with the six investigations going on," Koskinen told anchor Wolf Blitzer. "Now the I.G. is doing a seventh one. We've cooperated with everybody. Nobody wants this to end sooner than I do."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.