House Democrats delivered their most forceful rebuke to the Trump administration Tuesday, voting to empower committee chairs to go to the courts to demand compliance with investigative subpoenas.
The resolution passed on a party line 229-191 vote and is likely to get frequent use as Democratic chairs say their attempts to pry documents and testimony from the administration are facing unprecedented obstruction.
Although the resolution also applies to future battles, it specifically empowers the Judiciary Committee to go to court to demand that Attorney General William P. Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn provide documents and testimony surrounding former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
The resolution means chairs won’t have to come back for a full House vote for each new case, but instead can get permission from the House’s legal advisory group, which is controlled by Democrats.
“Congress is both constitutionally obligated and legally entitled to access and review materials from the executive branch which it can subpoena,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “Yet the president and the administration have shown an unprecedented and unjustified refusal to furnish Congress with that information.”
Republicans called the resolution premature, saying Democrats rushed to create legal battles rather than work out disagreements with the White House and the Trump administration.
That was exactly what happened Monday when Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, said he had reached a deal with the Justice Department to gain access to important evidence that Mr. Mueller compiled during his two-year investigation.
But Mr. Nadler said Tuesday’s vote was important because it also covers Mr. McGahn, whom the White House has told not to cooperate because of executive powers considerations.
Another target could be the Treasury Department and the IRS, which have refused demands to produce Mr. Trump’s tax returns to the Ways and Means Committee. Mr. Barr also could face jeopardy from another panel, the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which says he and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have stonewalled demands for testimony and documents related to the 2020 census.
A committee vote to recommend holding the two men in contempt of Congress is slated for Wednesday.
Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said that through the first five months of the congressional session, the White House hasn’t produced a single document to his panel, which is also investigating security clearances, Puerto Rico disaster recovery and official travel.
The Justice and Commerce departments, though, said they have produced thousands of pages of documents to Mr. Cummings on the census investigation and that he seems eager to orchestrate a confrontation.
The Justice Department said if Mr. Cummings goes ahead with the contempt vote in committee Wednesday, then it will sour chances for cooperation on those other investigations.
Tuesday’s vote in the full House was weaker than what was teased last week, when Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, promised a “contempt vote.”
Although Democrats promoted the measure as “contempt,” the word was absent from the resolution. Rep. Jamie Raskin, Maryland Democrat, said they used the word because that is what a federal court must reach in order to rule for the House.
“We are calling it contempt for short because the courts would have to find the executive branch in contempt in order to sort of render the orders to comply,” he said. “So it’s generally speaking not contempt.”
Democrats say that could happen later, but for now they are content to rope in judges as referees in their disputes with the administration.
Some Democrats say they would like the House to revive its long-dormant inherent contempt powers. Those would allow the House to arrest or fine officials who stonewall demands.
Republicans said Tuesday’s resolution was misguided and that the move could backfire if the courts rule against Congress, creating a precedent that would limit Capitol Hill in fights with the executive branch.
“Using untested tactics like this could set a dangerous precedent that harms us all — Republicans and Democrats — in the long run,” said Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican.
But Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, chairman of the Rules Committee and author of the resolution, said they had to move to combat administration stonewalling.
“What is the precedent for an administration refusing to comply with any congressional oversight?” Mr. McGovern said. “No documents, no information, nothing. There isn’t one.”
Mr. Nadler said his panel will swiftly initiate action against Mr. McGahn, a key witness in the Mueller probe.
Tuesday’s vote gave Democratic leaders a chance to let off some of the steam from their caucus, which has been riven by fights over how aggressively to investigate the administration and whether to begin impeachment proceedings.
But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, called the resolution “an impeachment effort in everything but name only.”
He said the party-line vote showed that Democrats are more interested in investigations than they are in legislation to advance the country’s priorities.
“The American people deserve a majority that is serious about coming up with solutions, not subpoenas,” he said.
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