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Congressional panel to review U.S. IRS progress on healthcare law

Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House
Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House

By Patrick Temple-West

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Internal Revenue Service executive in charge of enforcing President Barack Obama's new healthcare law will be the lone witness on Wednesday before a congressional panel run by Republicans resolutely opposed to the law.

As if that were not daunting enough, Sarah Hall Ingram also likely will be questioned by Republicans about her previous IRS job. She headed the IRS tax-exempt division at the time it started subjecting conservative groups allied with the Tea Party movement to extra scrutiny.

The double-whammy of Republican outrage to which she is likely to be subjected has raised concern among Democrats.

In the past, "Republicans have attacked Ms. Ingram unfairly by claiming she was responsible for 'targeting' Tea Party organizations seeking tax-exempt status, and they have called for her suspension," said a Democratic staff memo to lawmakers.

According to the memo, distributed on Tuesday ahead of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, Republican Jim Jordan once said, "I can't wait until we get her in front of the committee."

Republican Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said in a letter to Democrats on Tuesday that until now the IRS has "refused to allow" Ingram to testify. "Ms. Ingram is uniquely positioned to provide the committee with information" about implementing the healthcare law, he said.

A Republican staffer said Republicans hope to uncover at the hearing any problems that lie ahead for the IRS as it works to implement the healthcare law. Republicans have demanded defunding or delaying the law and last week shut down the federal government over the issue.

Republican committee members will question Ingram about any setbacks the Obama administration may be "hiding from the public," a committee spokeswoman said.

IRS offices are largely closed due to the federal government shutdown and attempts to reach Ingram were unsuccessful.

HEALTHCARE ROLLOUT AMID SHUTDOWN

The law - known formally as the Affordable Care Act and informally as Obamacare - has continued taking effect despite the government shutdown, now in its eighth day.

New state healthcare exchanges are drawing heavy interest but have suffered from technical problems.

The Treasury Department and IRS are on schedule to implement the Affordable Care Act during the government shutdown, a Treasury spokeswoman said.

But the shutdown, which has led to the furlough of more than 90 percent of the IRS workforce, "will affect a variety of IRS programs across the board," she said in a statement late on Tuesday. "Despite these constraints, we will do all that we can to continue implementation of the Affordable Care Act."

The law, among other provisions, requires most Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax starting in 2014. The IRS will have to collect that tax, just one of many jobs the agency is taking on to make Obamacare happen.

The Obama administration has delayed until 2015 the law's requirements for employers. Such setbacks underscore the need for a delay of the law overall, Issa's spokeswoman said in a statement.

The government shutdown was likely to aggravate the IRS's problems in meeting its timetable, lawyers said.

With more than 90 percent of IRS staffers furloughed, little work can get done on writing healthcare rules, which businesses are keen to see, said Greta Cowart, a lawyer with Winstead PC.

For example, she said, the IRS has not clarified the definition of a "seasonal employee" under the healthcare law.

"I want them back to work," Cowart said of the IRS staffers. "We're trying to march forward without any marching orders."

(Reporting by Patrick Temple-West; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bill Trott)

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