GOP resists calls for special prosecutor after Comey firing

Senate Republicans are resisting renewed calls from Democrats for the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Russia's actions in last year's election after President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Republicans, already facing a difficult legislative agenda, fear the controversy could become even more of a media circus and distract from efforts to pass healthcare legislation and tax reform through the Senate. 

Democrats ramped up pressure Wednesday by blocking committee hearings and objecting to routine procedural requests in protest of Comey’s dismissal.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPoll: Majority of voters say more police are needed amid rise in crime America's middle class is getting hooked on government cash — and Democrats aren't done yet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill MORE (N.Y.) declared that Trump’s Justice Department could not be trusted to conduct an investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, which would include looking at possible links to the president’s campaign.

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Amid Democratic allegations of a cover up, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban | Trump attorney says he will fight release of tax returns Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate McConnell warns Democrats against 'artificial timeline' for infrastructure deal MORE (R-Ky.) has largely kept his caucus in line by urging them not to join Democrats in demanding a special counsel.

GOP lawmakers say an independent investigation would only be warranted if an ongoing probe by the Senate Intelligence Committee hits a dead end.

“Let’s see what the Intelligence Committee and what Sen. Burr and Sen. Warner are going,” said Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Key Senate Republican praises infrastructure deal Biden to return to pre-Obama water protections in first step for clean water regulations MORE (R-W.Va.), who is on the fence over the need for a special prosecutor.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Optimism grows that infrastructure deal will get to Biden's desk MORE (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, have reported to colleagues that they have made good progress and are working well together, GOP senators say.

Republicans are hoping that Trump moves quickly in naming a new FBI director, as they think this could help them get back to healthcare and tax reform.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Schumer: Democrats 'on track' to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget MORE (R-Maine), a key moderate, told reporters that the uproar over has already distracted from the healthcare debate, and she was visibly angry after Democratic tactics forced the cancellation of a hearing she was supposed to chair as head of the Committee on Aging.

Seeking to tamp down a divisive and distracting fight over the FBI, Republican senators urged Trump to pick a candidate with sterling credentials and solid credibility.

Confirming an FBI director is usually done with strong bipartisan support. The Senate confirmed Comey 93 to 1 in 2013.

But the polarized political climate and Democrats' anger with Trump means the next fight could be a partisan war.

In repeating his rejection Wednesday of a special prosecutor, McConnell pointed out that Democrats in recent weeks sharply criticized Comey over his handling of an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive things to watch in two Ohio special election primaries Clintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections MORE’s use of an unauthorized email server and praised Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official who penned the rationale for dismissing Comey, before confirming him by a vote of 94 to 6.

Schumer took to the floor immediately afterward to rebut McConnell while almost the entire Democratic caucus watched from their desks, emphasizing the high stakes of the debate. 

He argued that Rosenstein’s memo, which said the FBI’s reputation and credibility suffered “substantial damage” under Comey, was not the real reason for his firing.

Schumer also reminded his colleagues that Rosenstein promised in testimony before the Judiciary Committee that he would appoint a special prosecutor at the right time. The Democrat insisted that time is now.

Schumer is demanding a closed-door briefing from Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE and Rosenstein for all senators. He’s also insisting that the administration and congressional Republicans agree to several conditions for a new investigation, including that the highest serving career civil servant at Justice, not Rosenstein, appoints a special prosecutor and that Comey testifies before Congress.

Republicans, with a few exceptions, brushed off the demands.

“Every time we have a problem, they call for a special prosecutor. We don’t need that,” said Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchDrug prices are declining amid inflation fears The national action imperative to achieve 30 by 30 Financial market transactions should not be taxed or restricted MORE (R-Utah).

Even Republicans who have offered muted criticism of Trump’s decision stopped short of joining Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE (Ariz.), the only Senate Republican so far to call for a special probe.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.), who is up for reelection next year and who tweeted he could not find “an acceptable rationale” for the timing of Comey’s dismissal, said the Senate intelligence panel should take the lead.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R-Tenn.), who warned Tuesday evening that getting rid of Comey “will raise questions” also declined to endorse a special prosecutor.

“I’m going to let 24 hours go by and get a sense of what all these things mean,” he told reporters.

Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska), however, told reporters that a special prosecutor “needs to be considered.”

Murkowski, a centrist whose vote will be critical in the healthcare debate, said the timing of Comey’s departure looks suspicious.

Collins, like Murkowski another centrist to watch, said it was “premature” for her to make a decision on a special prosecutor.

McCain conceded Wednesday that he did not know whether his call was getting any traction.

One of his closest allies, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Graham says he has COVID-19 'breakthrough' infection Graham, Cuellar press Biden to name border czar MORE (R-S.C.), gave political cover to Trump by arguing that a “fresh start” would serve the FBI well given recent controversies.

Jordain Carney and Nathaniel Weixel contributed.