Senate Judiciary Committee advances Barr nomination in party-line vote
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday advanced William Barr’s nomination to become attorney general in a vote that fell along party lines as Democrats raised questions about whether he can remain neutral overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
All 12 Republicans voted for Mr. Barr, while the committee’s 10 Democrats opposed him. The vote is a procedural step sending his nomination before the full Senate with a vote as soon as next week. Mr. Barr is expected to be confirmed easily because of Republicans’ control of the Senate.
If confirmed, Mr. Barr will oversee the sprawling Mueller investigation, which is focused on Russian meddling in the 2016 election and if it colluded with members of the Trump campaign to do so. The probe has been blasted by President Trump and his allies as a “witch hunt” and “hoax.”
Although Mr. Barr previously served as attorney general in President George H. W. Bush’s administration, Democrats remain skeptical that he’s the right choice for the job.
Late last week, the Judiciary Committee postponed its vote on Mr. Barr’s nomination because of concerns with Democrats a typical move for high-profile candidates. Mr. Barr met with several lawmakers on both sides to answer any lingering questions during the delay.
On Thursday, Democrats revived their questions about a 19-page memo Mr. Barr sent to Justice Department leaders Mr. Mueller’s inquiries on whether the president obstructed justice was “fatally misconceived.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and the committee’s ranking memo said the memo should disqualify Mr. Barr from becoming attorney general.
“This is a stunning legal argument,” she said “Taken to its natural conclusion, none of our laws would apply to the president.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, voted for Mr. Barr during his first confirmation hearing in 1991. He voted “no” on Thursday, saying the Trump administration needs an attorney general with more independence than the Bush presidency.
“Mr. Barr’s long-held views on executive powers could be weaponized by President Trump,” he said.
Some Republicans questioned Mr. Barr’s expensive view on presidential powers even as they sought to defend him.
“He said he would not allow executive privilege as an excuse to cover up wrongdoing. I’m going to hold him to that,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham, South Carolina Republican and committee chairman.
Democrats said they weren’t just concerned about the memo, but also how transparent he would be about releasing Mr. Mueller’s ultimate findings to Congress and the public. Mr. Barr has stopped short of guaranteeing he would make the entire report public.
Senators on both sides have pressed Mr. Barr for a more firm commitment, but he has said Justice Department regulations say it should remain confidential. Those regulations cover any report that explains the decision to pursue or delicate a prosecution.
“The American people desire to see that report,” said Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat. “They paid for it and they deserve to see everything that is in it.”
Mr. Blumenthal and another committee member, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, last month proposed legislation that would require Mr. Mueller submit a report to Congress and the public when the investigation is complete.
Despite his concerns about shielding the special counsel’s findings from the public, Mr. Grassley voted to support Mr. Barr’s nomination.
Mr. Leahy said Mr. Barr’s testimony “could lay the groundwork for potentially no transparency at all.”
Sen. Joe Kennedy, who supported Mr. Barr, agreed that the report should be made to the public. But he also conceded the issue is an “academic one” because Mr. Mueller’s findings will be leaked to the press.
“I think the Justice Department would be better off disclosing it once it is written,” he said. “The American people are entitled to the facts and judge for themselves.”
Also on Thursday, Mr. Barr picked up his first Democratic vote. Sen. Doug Jones, Alabama said he will support the nomination.
“I have concluded that Mr. Barr is qualified for the position of attorney general and his record strongly suggests he will exercise independent judgment and uphold the best interests of the Justice Department,” Mr. Jones said in a statement.