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 SchumerTo save the Postal Service, bring it online White House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders Schumer declines to say whether Trump executive orders are legal: They don't 'do the job' 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 McConnellTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill No signs of breakthrough for stalemated coronavirus talks State aid emerges as major hurdle to reviving COVID-19 talks 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 CapitoAnalysis finds record high number of woman versus woman congressional races Former VA staffer charged with giving seven patients fatal insulin doses Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick MORE (R-W.Va.), who is on the fence over the need for a special prosecutor.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag Hillicon Valley: Google extending remote work policy through July 2021 | Intel community returns final Russia report to Senate committee after declassification | Study finds election officials vulnerable to cyberattacks Intel community returns final Russia report volume to Senate after declassification review MORE (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThe Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election US intelligence says Russia seeking to 'denigrate' Biden GOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe 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 CollinsState aid emerges as major hurdle to reviving COVID-19 talks Senators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority 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 ClintonHarris favored as Biden edges closer to VP pick Ron Johnson subpoenas documents from FBI director as part of Russia origins probe Juan Williams: Older voters won't forgive Trump for COVID 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 SessionsThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence FBI officials hid copies of Russia probe documents fearing Trump interference: book Tuberville breaks DC self-quarantine policy to campaign 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 HatchBottom line Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Five takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs MORE (R-Utah).

Even Republicans who have offered muted criticism of Trump’s decision stopped short of joining Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column CNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' MORE (Ariz.), the only Senate Republican so far to call for a special probe.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism 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 CorkerTennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama 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 GrahamSeveral GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief 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.