GOP’s Obama-era probes fuel Senate angst

The Republican investigations into the Obama administration are fueling public animosity in the Senate.

Those tensions, which have been simmering for months, boiled over this past week, resulting in shouting matches and multiple warnings of long-standing damage to the chamber as an institution.

The scene played out across days, on and off the floor and in multiple committee rooms, as both Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took up subpoenas related to their investigations and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testified for the first time since resigning last year.

Graham, a top Trump ally of President Trump, tipped his hand to the months of building frustration, much of which has played out in shots fired through the press, saying Democrats had made it “abundantly clear” that they disagree with him and “think I am in Trump’s pocket.”

“It’s not lost on me,” Graham said. “But to expect me to punt? You can forget it.”

Democrats view the probes as an effort by Republicans to use their Senate gavels to go after Trump’s political enemies — including former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — ahead of November.

“This is going to be a Trump reelect show from start to finish,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told The Hill.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former chairman, called Graham’s subpoena threat “the Senate at its worst.”

The bickering comes as Republicans are ramping up their investigations into decisions stemming from the Obama administration, including the FBI’s probe into Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign and former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Graham on Thursday delayed a vote on a wide-ranging subpoena, which would include more than 50 people, after a fierce clash with Democrats over the request. They will instead vote on the subpoena on Thursday, when Graham is expected to ultimately have the votes.

Durbin, during the hearing, told Graham that he viewed the investigation as about a “president who just can’t get over it — maybe he will never will — and by a chairman who wants him to have another day to make his point about how he was mistreated.”

Graham interrupted to say, “With all due respect, I don’t buy what you’re saying at all.”

The rancor, which comes in the lead-up to the 2020 election, is the latest high-profile fight in a Senate increasingly battered by partisan tensions, ranging from Supreme Court nominations to an impeachment trial that ended only four months ago.

Just this past week, the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, despite an active investigation by the D.C. attorney general and an attempt by Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to delay the vote.

“I have been really patient. Every time that I set this for a hearing and they wanted more time, I let that go,” said Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) as he rejected the attempt to delay Michael Pack’s nomination.

But the Judiciary Committee, in particular, has been at the center of some of the chamber’s biggest fights, including Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and William Barr’s attorney general nomination. At the same hearing where Graham delayed the subpoena vote, the committee also voted along party lines to send Justin Walker’s D.C. Circuit nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, warned that if Graham goes forward with the subpoena, he’ll be setting a long-lasting and, in her view, damaging precedent for how the committee uses its investigatory powers.

“Once the door is opened to proceeding in this manner – to allowing the chairman sweeping, unilateral authority to subpoena political opponents – that door remains open, regardless of which party has majority power,” she said.

Graham, however, argued that Democrats being unwilling to help him investigate “says a lot, I think, not good about this committee.”

“I feel passionately about what I’m doing and why, and I don’t need anybody to validate to me I know what I’m up to. I think I’ve been more than fair. They have a different view and that’s the way it goes,” he added to The Hill.

Johnson successfully got subpoena authority to compel more than 30 individuals to testify and demand a wide swath of documents as he probes what he sees as “corruption” stemming from the Obama administration, including the Russia investigation, the case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired after lying about his conversations with a Russian ambassador, and embarrassing leaks dating back to the early days of Trump’s presidency. 

But before Johnson did so, he got an earful from both sides of the aisle who questioned if the investigation was the best use of the committee’s time during a pandemic.

Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on the committee, said the subpoena request looked like a “fishing expedition” that came even as the Justice Department is investigating much of the same ground.

“To duplicate the Justice Department’s efforts now suggests that this pursuit is more about duplicating headlines than any real need for an investigation,” Peters said.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he had struck a deal with Johnson that would let him support the subpoena authority request but not without raising concerns about the probe.

“I believe there are far more urgent priorities the committee should address,” Romney said. “I continue to be concerned that this is politically motivated.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) voted to allow Johnson to issue the subpoenas but said he hoped the chairman wouldn’t ultimately do so amid “all of the other things we have on our plate right now” and “unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

In the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) also found himself at odds with Graham after he fumed that the public sparring was “bullshit” fueled because there were TV cameras in the room.

“Ninety percent of our committees are about people trolling for sound bites,” Sasse added.

The moment had a perhaps unintended consequence: It rallied Graham to defend Democrats as well as his own right to argue with them.

“I didn’t want to say anybody’s grandstanding. They genuinely disagree with what I’m doing. I genuinely disagree with their approach to how we should do oversight,” Graham told The Hill. “Sen. Sasse is frustrated, but I don’t want to cheapen what they’re doing. I don’t think they’re playing to the cameras. I think they sincerely believe what they believe.”

Tags Ben Sasse Bob Menendez Brett Kavanaugh Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Donald Trump Gary Peters Investigation Jim Risch Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Mitt Romney Mueller investigation Obama administration Patrick Leahy Probe Rob Portman Robert Menendez Rod Rosenstein Ron Johnson Russia Investigation Subpoena William Barr
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