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Clinton Tells Gop: Don’t Politicize Irs

President Clinton came to the defense of the beleaguered Internal Revenue Service on Tuesday, asserting it is “functioning better” than when he took office and warning critics not to “politicize it” in their rush to attack.

In his first remarks on the IRS since congressional hearings high-lighted abuse of taxpayers last week, Clinton said he had followed the testimony “with great interest” and believes it raised “some legitimate points,” noting his administration has been working to revamp the agency.

“I believe the IRS is functioning better today than it was five years ago,” Clinton told reporters. “I think it has to improve more. And I think we should not try to sweep any of these problems under the rug.”

But, he added in a reference to Republican proposals, “we should not politicize it and we should not do anything that will in any way call into question whether it’s being evenhanded or fair in the future.”

The IRS question has emerged as a potential issue that could be used to draw distinctions between the parties during next year’s congressional elections. The White House has been wary about how to handle the issue without ceding ground to the GOP.

Even as the president stuck to a measured tone, his aides were engaged in a far more caustic exchange with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who has relished the opportunity to cast Clinton as the defender of the tax collector.