New disclosures that the Internal Revenue Service targeted liberals as well as conservatives in assessing applications for tax-exempt status have reshaped perceptions of the scandal, shifting the focus away from Republican claims of political villainy.
Investigations by the FBI, congressional committees, the Treasury inspector general's office and the IRS continue, but Monday's revelations bolstered assertions by agency officials and Democrats that the problem was egregious mismanagement instead of intentional misconduct by the Obama administration.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California told CNN on Tuesday that the priority now should be to ensure that laws and regulations prohibiting political groups from getting tax-exempt status are properly enforced, regardless of whether organizations are on left or right.
"These groups are in some ways giving the appearance that their primary purpose is the common good, the common welfare ... when they are actively engaged in political activity, for which they shouldn't be getting a tax deduction," Pelosi said.
However, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin argued too many questions remain unanswered to stop investigating whether politics played a role in the controversy.
"What we still don't know is who ordered this kind of targeting, why did it take so long for them to clean it up?" Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, told CBS.
Asked if the claim of political motivation now seemed less valid, he responded: "I don't know the answer to that, so we're going to let the facts take us where they take us."
In particular, Ryan said he wanted more details on why conservative-oriented groups had their tax-exempt applications stalled and experienced harassing behavior by the IRS, such as having to answer inappropriate questions about the beliefs and activities of members.
At the same time, he sounded like Pelosi in saying the bigger question involved the practice of targeting, rather than who specifically got targeted.
"We know that the IRS did target people based upon their political beliefs," Ryan said. "Who cares whether they're right or left? ... The fact that they're targeting people for harassment based upon their political beliefs should be cause enough alone for outrage."
That's a big change from inferences by GOP leaders in recent weeks that the Obama administration was likely behind the targeting that started in 2010 in an effort to subdue political rivals.
With no evidence to date of any such connection, it was unclear how hard congressional committees would continue pushing the issue.
The GOP-led House Ways and Means Committee has scheduled a hearing on Thursday on an initial review of the IRS targeting by the agency's temporary leader, Daniel Werfel.
President Barack Obama appointed Werfel to clean up the IRS mess last month after an inspector general's audit uncovered targeting of applications that contained conservative-themed words such as "tea party."
The audit by Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George only cited the targeting of conservative groups, which it said ended in May 2012.
In his first substantive report on the agency, Werfel said Monday that its tax-exempt unit used multiple lists of inappropriate criteria in assessing tax-exempt applications until earlier this month, more than a year later than previously revealed.
The "Be on the Lookout" or BOLO lists included liberal-themed words such as "progressives" and other politically oriented terms such as "occupy" and "medical marijuana" in alerting IRS workers to check for unacceptable political activities, according to copies made available by Democratic Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan.
Werfel said he has suspended the use of BOLO lists in considering tax-exempt applications for now.
A statement by Levin questioned why George's audit focused only on BOLO lists that contained conservative labels.
The inspector general's report "served as the basis and impetus for a wide range of congressional investigations, and this new information shows that the foundation of those investigations is flawed in a fundamental way," Levin's statement said.
A spokesperson for George later responded that the report focused only on BOLO criteria used to refer cases for extra scrutiny of potential political activity that would make groups ineligible for tax-exempt status.
Republicans have claimed the controversy amounted to political retribution against enemies of the administration, an accusation denied by the White House and the IRS.
In response to Levin's statement, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Camp, R-Michigan, said the inclusion of "progressives" on a BOLO list did not prove that liberal groups underwent the same extra scrutiny of conservative groups cited in the inspector general's report.
The release of George's audit last month ignited a political firestorm in Washington while fueling conservative mistrust of Obama's administration as an example of big government gone wild.
Werfel noted Monday that his internal investigation, while still incomplete, found no evidence so far of intentional wrongdoing by IRS personnel or involvement by anyone outside the IRS. He also said no evidence had emerged that in appropriate targeting extended into other areas of the agency.