Democrats plot their strategy in wake of Comey firing

Senate Democrats spent Wednesday boycotting Senate hearings and declaring a need for a special prosecutor to avoid a “constitutional crisis,” but in the end they hold little sway.

As the party’s progressive wing urged Democrats to take a hard line and bring the Senate to a standstill in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, Democrats huddled in an emergency caucus meeting on Capitol Hill to explore their options.

Liberals would like to see the party take a page from Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and obstruct Senate business until Republicans agree on an independent investigation into Trump’s Russia ties. McConnell, among other measures, thwarted a vote last year on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.

But it was unclear Wednesday how far how far Democrats are willing to go, with several suggesting they’d rather go a bipartisan route and convince Republicans to support an outside probe.

Without Republican support for a special prosecutor, Democrats’ options are limited to trying to slow down the GOP agenda. That includes declining to show up for committee hearings, offering amendments calling for a prosecutor or other related issues on bills to force Republican votes, and other parliamentary procedures like slowing nominations.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he would put a hold on Trump’s choice for a treasury undersecretary until the Treasury Department provided the Senate with information related to Russia and financial dealings with Trump and his associates.

“We have to follow the money if we are going to get to the bottom of how Russia has attacked our democracy,” Wyden said.

There were a few early casualties: The Senate health committee postponed a meeting to advance a Food and Drug Administration issue because Democrats were at a caucus meeting. And Democrats saw that 10 hearings did not happen, including a closed-door Armed Services Committee briefing on countering Russian influence. The Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship postponed until Thursday a nomination hearing for a Trump Small Business Administration nominee.

Republicans rose on the Senate floor to protest the scrapped committee meetings, with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., at one point noting that Democrats were holding up their own legislation – a bill to recognize Indian tribes. He noted witnesses had traveled from Alaska to testify on another bill.

Sorry, said Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who voiced the Democratic opposition.

“These are not business-as-usual times,” Hirono said, adding that Comey’s firing “should be a matter of concern to every single member of the Senate” and Democrats would continue to call for a special prosecutor.

Liberal groups planned to hold protests outside Senate offices nationwide, calling on Congress to launch an independent investigation.

Democrats, though, risk appearing like obstructionists, Republicans warned. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accused Democrats of launching a “partisan fishing expedition,” noting that the investigation is now being led by a deputy attorney general who was confirmed by the Senate in a bipartisan vote.

“The position of the Democrats, unfortunately, has been across-the-board resistance and obstruction,” Cruz said. “It is nothing new in this Congress that Senate Democrats are opposed to working together productively on pretty much anything to address the challenges of this country.”

Some Democrats held out hope that Republicans will see the need for an independent prosecutor.

“There are a lot of my Republican colleagues who have expressed grave concerns as well, so I’m hopeful,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said. “If there’s ever a time that an issue . . . needs to be as nonpartisan as possible, it’s right now.”

Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said a senior career official in the Department of Justice should make the appointment, because he didn’t have faith in the political appointees in the Trump administration. He also suggested that the Senate “ought to, frankly, hold off” on the confirmation process for Comey’s replacement at the FBI “until we get the special prosecutor.”

Majority Leader McConnell, though, dismissed calls for an independent investigator to be appointed by the Department of Justice as partisan and said the Senate would continue with its own investigation.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked McConnell for a closed and “if necessary” classified all-senators briefing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to answer questions about Comey’s firing.

“The only thing we are seeking are assurances that this investigation is carried out in an impartial, independent way. That we get all the facts. That we get to the very bottom of it,” Schumer said. “All we are seeking is some assurance that the subject of this investigation is not able to influence it or, God forbid, quash it.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Democrats sought to determine what ability they had to ensure that a special prosecutor was appointed, but she and other Democrats offered few details on their leverage.

“Hopefully we can do it in a bipartisan way,” she said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she was expecting some Republicans to side with Democrats. “There are Republicans who understand the gravity of this situation and it’s time to think about our country,” she said. But she declined to say how Democrats could force the issue.

“It is not time to make every single decision about what we do if we don’t get our way,” Murray said.

Democrats said they were cognizant of the risks of politicizing the issue.

“We’ll make our point as to why” there should be a special prosecutor, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, adding, “I don’t think this is a Democratic issue and I don’t think this is a Republican issue.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the recipient of an early morning Trump diatribe on Twitter after he criticized the president for firing Comey, declined to go into specifics but hinted that Democrats could stall floor proceedings and fail to show up to hearings if a special prosecutor is not appointed.

“There is no more important issue that I will face as a United States senator than upholding the integrity of our justice system and our Constitution,” Blumenthal said. “Right now both are in peril because of political interference by the president of the United States in an ongoing investigation.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., suggested that Democrats “could make the case for why it’s the appropriate time to have a special prosecutor.

“The voices that are really needed are those of the American people,” he said.

Sean Cockerham, Alex Daugherty and Rob Hotakainen contributed to this article.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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