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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerProtecting our judiciary must be a priority in the 116th Congress Baldwin's Trump plays 'Deal or No Deal' with shutdown on 'Saturday Night Live' Sunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal 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 McConnellDACA recipient claims Trump is holding ‘immigrant youth hostage’ amid quest for wall Former House Republican: Trump will lose the presidency if he backs away from border security Pence quotes MLK in pitch for Trump's immigration proposal 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 CapitoOvernight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans Dems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing Republican senators skeptical of using national emergency for wall funding MORE (R-W.Va.), who is on the fence over the need for a special prosecutor.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrHillicon Valley: Senate panel subpoenas Roger Stone associate | Streaming giants hit with privacy complaints in Europe | FTC reportedly discussing record fine for Facebook | PayPal offering cash advances to unpaid federal workers Senate panel subpoenas Roger Stone associate Jerome Corsi Manafort developments trigger new ‘collusion’ debate MORE (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGiuliani: Trump Tower Moscow talks went 'as far as October, November' 2016 Senate Dem: Trump immigration proposal a 'starting point' Washington fears new threat from 'deepfake' videos 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 CollinsTrump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback The Memo: Concern over shutdown grows in Trump World Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal 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 ClintonIdentity politics and the race for the Democratic nomination O'Rourke’s strategy: Show Americans the real Beto Conservatives pound BuzzFeed, media over Cohen report 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 SessionsOvernight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' Acting AG Whitaker's wife defends him in lengthy email to journalist Watchdog: Thousands more migrant children separated from parents than previously known 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 HatchPhRMA CEO 'hopeful' Trump officials will back down on drug pricing move Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing Trump praises RNC chairwoman after she criticizes her uncle Mitt Romney MORE (R-Utah).

Even Republicans who have offered muted criticism of Trump’s decision stopped short of joining Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainListen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO MORE (Ariz.), the only Senate Republican so far to call for a special probe.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSchumer recruiting top-notch candidate for McCain Senate seat The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least 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 CorkerThe Memo: Romney moves stir worries in Trump World Senate GOP names first female members to Judiciary panel Former US special envoy to anti-ISIS coalition joins Stanford University as lecturer 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 GrahamExperts warn of persistent ISIS threat after suicide bombing Graham: Trump should meet Pakistan's leader to reset relations State of American politics is all power games and partisanship 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.