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Mueller fallout deepens Senate tensions

The fallout from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE's probe is deepening fracture lines in the Senate.

Tensions spiked during the Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Attorney General William BarrBill BarrMajority of Republicans say 2020 election was invalid: poll Biden administration withdraws from Connecticut transgender athlete case Justice Department renews investigation into George Floyd's death: report MORE, marking the latest point of frustration on the high-profile panel.

Republicans accused Democrats of giving Trump’s AG the “Kavanaugh treatment,” while Democrats returned fire by suggesting the GOP was chasing conspiracy theories with its plan to probe “spying” and the handling of the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons remember former adviser Vernon Jordan Biden praises Vernon Jordan: He 'knew the soul of America' The parts of H.R. 1 you haven't heard about MORE email investigation.

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Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTanden withdraws nomination as Biden budget chief FBI director faces lawmaker frustration over Capitol breach Juan Williams: Hypocrisy runs riot in GOP MORE (R-S.C.), asked about the tone of the hearing, argued that Democrats are out to destroy anything related to Trump, as part of a revenge plot for losing the 2016 election.

“I said, ‘Listen guys, [Eric] Holder came, [Loretta] Lynch came, nothing was like this.’ It’s a character assassination of the attorney general,” Graham told radio host Mark LevinMark Reed LevinTrump to appear on conservative networks in wake of Limbaugh's death Rush Limbaugh dead at 70 Limbaugh falsely says Biden didn't win legitimately while reacting to inauguration MORE, referring to former President Obama's attorneys general. “Trump has created a new standard for Democrats: As long as you’re trying to get him, nothing else really matters.”

With regard to the contentious hearing, Graham added that he had “never seen anything like it” and that he sat in the room questioning “what has happened to the United States Senate.”

One of the biggest pressure points was between Graham and Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 | Kerry presses oil companies to tackle climate change | Biden delays transfer of sacred lands for copper mine Pro-Choice Caucus asks Biden to remove abortion fund restrictions from 2022 budget Sunday shows preview: 2024 hopefuls gather at CPAC; House passes coronavirus relief; vaccine effort continues MORE (D-Hawaii), whom he accused of “slandering” Barr after she said he was “no different from Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGiuliani again suspended from YouTube over false election claims Sacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Biden administration buys 100,000 doses of Lilly antibody drug MORE or Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayGeorge Conway calls for thorough Lincoln Project probe: 'The lying has to stop' Claudia Conway advances on 'American Idol,' parents Kellyanne, George appear The swift death of the media darlings known as the Lincoln Project MORE or any of the other people who sacrifice their once-decent reputation for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office.”

When Hirono asked Barr to “give us some credit for knowing what the hell is going on around here with you,” Graham interrupted, saying that Hirono had “slandered this man every way you can.”

Hirono on Thursday said that while there were still areas on the committee where she tries to reach out to Republicans, things could “be a lot better.” And she took a shot at Graham over his refusal to call Mueller and other officials like former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify before the panel.

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“I’m more than frustrated. I’m really disappointed that Lindsey doesn’t have more of a commitment to call the kind of witnesses that should be called. That’s why I’m grateful, at least, that the House is in Democratic hands,” Hirono said.

She added that “when we start looking at democracy, rule of law, apparently we can’t look to the Senate for support of those ideas.”

The war of words is the latest incident after the Judiciary panel has been battered in recent months by fights over Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughJustices hear sparring over scope of safeguards for minority voters Supreme Court faces landmark challenge on voting rights Will 'Cover-up Cuomo' be marching to 'Jail to the Chief'? MORE, a steady stream of controversial judicial picks and even Barr’s confirmation battle. 

GOP Sens. John CornynJohn CornynBottom line This week: Senate takes up coronavirus relief after minimum wage setback Senate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill MORE (Texas) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTanden withdraws nomination as Biden budget chief Boehner book jacket teases slams against Cruz, Trump Senate confirms Biden Commerce secretary pick Gina Raimondo MORE (Texas), both members of the committee, hearkened back to last year’s months-long explosive Supreme Court fight by accusing Democrats of giving Barr the “Kavanaugh treatment.”

Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed after a bloody fight confirmation fight where he faced multiple accusations of sexual assault, all of which he denied.

The Judiciary Committee has emerged as one of the most high-profile panels on Capitol Hill given its role in both nominations and lightning rod issues like immigration and oversight of the Justice Department and FBI.

Members of the panel argued that there was still room for bipartisanship, while also acknowledging the tension inherent in anything related to Mueller’s probe.

“This is the most partisan issue of the last several years; it is natural that there’s political tension,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinBiden coronavirus relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority Hillicon Valley: Senate confirms Biden Commerce secretary pick Gina Raimondo | Wray hints at federal response to SolarWinds hack | Virginia governor signs comprehensive data privacy law Wray hints at federal response to SolarWinds hack MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, when asked about the tone of the panel’s hearing with Barr.

But Durbin also mocked Republicans during the Barr hearing over their plans to investigate Obama-era scandals, accusing GOP senators of running the “lock her up defense.”

“Finally, we get down to the bottom line. Hillary Clinton's emails, questions have to be asked about Benghazi along the way. What about Travelgate, Whitewater?” Durbin asked, referring to two controversies from President Clinton's administration.

After a back-and-forth with Barr about whether the White House would block McGahn from testifying, Durbin added a parting shot: “I would hope that we could get to the bottom of this with actual testimony of witnesses after we've taken another close look at Hillary Clinton's emails.”

The escalating tensions spilled out onto the Senate floor on Thursday, where committee member Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisMcConnell backs Garland for attorney general GOP senators demand probe into Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths CNN anchor confronts GOP chairman over senator's vote to convict Trump MORE (R-N.C.) accused Democrats on the panel of “really trying to mislead the American people.”

“What this boils down to is theater; some of it almost to the level of comedy,” Tillis said, adding that Democrats should “stop the theater and get back to work.”

He also knocked House Democrats while standing next to a poster of Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who showed up to a House hearing on Thursday with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken to make a point about Barr’s lack of courage.

“You tell me whether or not the chair of that committee is actually serious about the subject when you've got a guy eating fried chicken in place of where they wanted Attorney General Barr to be,” Tillis said.

The drama in the Senate coincided with the unraveling of Barr's scheduled appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. The Justice Department announced hours after the Senate finished its hearing that the attorney general was pulling out over objections about the format.

Instead, House Democrats left an empty chair for Barr at Thursday’s hearing and are threatening to hold him in contempt, even suggesting they could seek his impeachment.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to pressure Graham to reverse course and call Mueller to testify. Graham has argued that the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the Trump campaign is “over.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerA Biden stumble on China? First Black secretary of Senate sworn in Republican Ohio Senate candidate calls on GOP rep to resign over impeachment vote MORE (D-N.Y.) called out Graham by name from the Senate floor Thursday, saying he was “being totally derelict in his duties as Chair of the Judiciary Committee not to invite Mr. Mueller.”

“So I would ask Sen. Graham to reconsider ... to think about his long history of trying to be fair and often — not so much recently — but often bipartisan. He’s someone I worked with on — and he showed great courage — on immigration,” Schumer said. “He cannot have the Judiciary Committee simply be a political arm of the president, which is where it’s devolving under his chairmanship.”