The Republican-controlled committee voted 23-14 Wednesday to send the criminal referral to Attorney General Eric Holder, saying the former IRS official "may have violated multiple criminal statutes."
Another panel, the House Oversight Committee, plans to move forward with its own resolution holding Lerner in contempt on Thursday.
"This investigation has uncovered serious, unprecedented actions taken by Lois Lerner that deprived conservative groups of their rights under the Constitution," said Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp, R-Mich., in a statement. "Today's action highlights specific wrongdoing for the Department of Justice to pursue. DOJ has a responsibility to act, and Lois Lerner must be held accountable."
Wednesday's hearing turned contentious after Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., tried to keep the deliberations open to the public. Telling Levin to "chill out," Camp and the Republicans overrode objections and closed the session, quickly voting to approve the criminal referral.
Lerner has invoked her Fifth Amendment rights not to testify on several occasions before both committees. She has been accused of using her position at the IRS to improperly target conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Should she be convicted, Lerner could face up to 11 years in prison, but the Justice Department is not obligated to act on Congress's referral.