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Democrats signal growing interest in examining ties between NRA, Russia

House Democrats are signaling a growing interest in examining possible ties between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Russia during the 2016 election amid news that an alleged Russian agent with ties to the gun rights lobbying group is nearing a plea deal.

“This is certainly one of the investigative threads that the GOP would not allow us to pursue," said Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHillicon Valley: DOJ accuses Russian hackers of targeting 2018 Olympics, French elections | Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats | House Democrats slam FCC over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats Ratcliffe, Schiff battle over Biden emails, politicized intelligence MORE (D-Calif.), who is poised to become the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "And there were witnesses that were very pertinent that we wanted to bring in.”

Court documents filed on Monday suggest the alleged agent, Maria Butina, has reached a plea deal.

The Department of Justice charged Butina in July for allegedly working as a Russian agent seeking to “infiltrate organizations” by developing relationships with U.S. individuals who were active in American politics.

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“I would like to know more about it. I think there are a lot of unanswered questions there now that we know Maria Butina is cooperating,” said Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesOvernight Defense: Pentagon IG to audit use of COVID-19 funds on contractors | Dems optimistic on blocking Trump's Germany withdrawal | Obama slams Trump on foreign policy House panel urges intelligence community to step up science and technology efforts Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones MORE (D-Conn.), another Intelligence panel member.

Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillinePocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair Jewish lawmakers targeted by anti-Semitic tweets ahead of election: ADL Pelosi suggests Trump setting 'dangerous' example with quick return to White House MORE (D-R.I.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said reports of the plea deal raised “additional interest I think, at least for me, about the role between the NRA and Russian operatives in the presidential campaign.”

Some Democrats say they specifically want to examine whether the Russians may have laundered money through the NRA to President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE and other candidates during the presidential election. They pointed to analysis that the NRA surpassed its spending during the 2016 race by nearly $100 million compared to previous years.

“So we know that the NRA spent a historic amount of money on the 2016 elections to help not just Donald Trump get elected but also a number of senators and members of Congress. We want to know where that money came from,” said Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuPelosi suggests Trump setting 'dangerous' example with quick return to White House The spin on Woodward's tapes reveals the hypocrisy of Democrats Larry Kudlow defends response to coronavirus: Trump 'led wisely' MORE (D), a California lawmaker who also sits on the House Judiciary Committee.

“And based on public reporting, some of that came from Russia, or at least was Russian-related. And we want to know if any of that money then went to help Trump or those lawmakers elected,” he added.

The Kremlin denies that Butina worked for their intelligence service. The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Democrats’ accusations of Russia possibly using the NRA as a cover to fund Trump’s campaign are not new, but they are more important with the party about to have the House majority and subpoena power.

Earlier this year, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee claimed that they had obtained documents that suggest Russia used the NRA “to secretly fund Mr. Trump’s campaign.” Butina was named in the panel's preliminary findings.

The Democrats identified Butina and Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, as two people of particular interest. Butina worked as an assistant to Torshin.

At the time, a pair of Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee called on the panel to examine whether top officials at the gun rights group were aware of Russia's attempts to contribute money to the Trump campaign. The Democrats in the upper chamber did not have the power to force such requests. Democrats in the House, however, are expected to launch a series of investigations into the Trump administration when they take hold of the committee gavels.

“Come January, we do get subpoena power,” Lieu noted.

There may be a battle between lawmakers on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees for jurisdiction.

“This I think would be clearly within the realm of the intelligence committee since this was an intelligence operative working in the United States,” Schiff told The Hill.

Lieu, who said a number of committees could look at the issue, said key aspects of the bill also fall within Judiciary’s jurisdiction.

“In this case, she is charged with espionage, which Judiciary has jurisdiction over. In addition, this is an issue that the Department of Justice is trying to negotiate with Butina. Judiciary has oversight of the Department of Justice. We also have oversight of guns in general so it would appear to be that Judiciary would be a rational place to do a hearing,” Lieu said.

Democrats also cautioned that while they are interested in knowing more, they do not want to impede on special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s investigation.

“Obviously, again, I think we would always want to do that again in a way that doesn’t compromise or interfere with any ongoing criminal investigations,” Cicilline said.

Butina, who is expected to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the law governing foreign agents in the U.S., has agreed to tell prosecutors about the role of her boyfriend, longtime GOP activist Paul Erickson, as well as her interactions with Russians who coordinated her activities in the U.S., according to reports.

A hearing on the Butina case is slated for Thursday after being postponed a day.