The real world is full of hot wars and cold wars, but the Senate is now fully engaged in a turf war.
The battle lines are being drawn by the very powerful leaders of the committees that oversee national security matters, who are trying to assert jurisdiction over the unfolding saga surrounding U.S. assertions that Russia tried to disrupt the 2016 presidential campaign.
Before this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), seeking to cordon off the probe inside the most secretive of panels, the Senate Intelligence Committee, had faced off against Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who for weeks had called for a more sweeping public investigation.
But the pressure for more immediate and visible action has intensified with Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser after revelations that he spoke repeatedly with the Russian ambassador last year.
With new details coming almost daily, frustration has grown on Capitol Hill with the slow pace of the Intelligence Committee’s work, under its chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). And that has sparked new interest in whether other committees should get a piece of the action — or whether a select committee should be created that would pull in the top members of all the relevant committees.
After a pair of bipartisan, closed-door huddles, Burr still had the lead role on the investigation. But doubt was creeping in.
“I guess the question is, is that the best way to have a fulsome look, 360, at everything that’s been going on? And I don’t know,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters before the GOP’s luncheon.
Corker said he is “mulling” the right path, whether it’s a select committee or just giving out more pieces of the investigation to other panels. “I’m telling you that I’m not sure we have the most efficient situation right now on this,” he said.
Burr said he’s doing just fine. “We’re into it and we will methodically continue,” he told reporters. But while other senators, both Republicans and Democrats, have called for Flynn to testify about his discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December about economic sanctions, Burr also acknowledged that his panel has not decided whether to do so. “We don’t even know what to ask Mr. Flynn,” Burr said.
Turf wars don’t split on ideological lines. They often hinge more on which committees get the clout and glamour that come with a high-profile investigation.
These are moments that can often define a senator’s career. Even before Flynn’s resignation landed at 11 p.m. Monday, commentators were demanding, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” — parrying the infamous line uttered in 1973 by Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) when he served on the special committee to investigate the Watergate scandal.
Burr has the backing of the top Democrat on his committee, Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), who said he told Democrats that there was no need to expand the investigation beyond his panel.
“We’ve already started this process. We’re already starting to review the raw intelligence. We are well down this path,” Warner said. He also told his colleagues that creating a new select committee would be cumbersome, requiring new legislative authority, a staff and a retread of much of the ground that the Intelligence Committee is already covering.
Warner’s comments came after a previously unscheduled gathering of the Democratic caucus, which Schumer’s aides trumpeted as “an emergency” meeting because of Tuesday’s report in the New York Times that intelligence officials had traced contacts between Trump advisers and Russian intelligence officials throughout the 2016 campaign.
Yet Schumer emerged with nothing new to add to the investigative spectrum other than to say that Democrats would push other committees to weigh in at times. In December, as intelligence officials confirmed their belief that Russian cyberattacks and other efforts were designed to help Trump win, Schumer and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led an unsuccessful call for the creation of a select committee.
Some Democrats and Republicans latched onto the idea again in light of the latest media reports, including The Washington Post’s report Monday that senior officials had warned the Trump administration that Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador left him open to potential blackmail by Moscow.
One’s position on the issue can sometimes be determined by membership on the committee in question. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a former chairman of the Intelligence Committee who remains a senior member, rejected calls for a new committee or commission to wade into the matter.
“I think it’s fair to say there are differences of opinion in the caucus,” she said after the Democratic meeting. “The question is how soon can you get started, in my mind.”
Critics of that committee’s recent history have noted that its work is often done in secret and takes years to flesh out, such as the multiple reports issued on interrogation techniques used in the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This has consequences that are immediate,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), noting that the 2018 elections need protection from Russian interference. Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, joined Schumer, McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in the initial push for a new select committee to handle the matter. Now, he has resigned himself to the reality that it will reside exclusively under Burr and Warner — so long as the work gets done.
“Now we have to make sure that that actually is purposeful and accomplishes a full and complete investigation,” Reed said.
Warner said he understands the concern, and he has promised Democrats that he will revisit the creation of a new investigative panel if he feels Burr and the Republicans are not acting in good faith.
“If at any point we are not able to get the full information and we’re not pursuing the information to where the intelligence leads, we’ll look at other options,” he said.