WASHINGTON -- House Democrats on Tuesday voted to authorize going to court to enforce their subpoenas against Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn, the most dramatic move yet to prod the Trump administration to respond to Congress' oversight inquiries.
But the House stopped short of holding either man in contempt of Congress, a stronger action that was recommended last month by the House Judiciary Committee. The concession comes as the Justice Department has taken a more cooperative approach, agreeing Monday to turn over some documents related to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation.
The emphasis on seeking relief from U.S. courts is also part of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's strategy of relying on litigation to pressure Trump and relieve some of the pressure from party progressives to open impeachment proceedings. Democratic leaders hope that federal judges will order Trump officials to comply with their subpoenas, giving further public legitimacy to their efforts and raising the possibility that administration officials could be held in civil contempt of court.
It's also an acknowledgement that any vote to hold the men in criminal contempt of Congress would likely stall because the Justice Department would not agree to prosecute the cases.
The 229-191 vote was entirely along partisan lines.
The House also voted Tuesday to grant committee leaders new power to go to court if the Trump administration defies future subpoenas.
House Democrats voted to give all committee chairpersons authority to go to court with only the sign-off of a small group of five lawmakers, rather than seeking approval in a full House vote. Republicans said that would allow Democrats to avoid potentially difficult public votes on whether to pursue legal action against the Trump administration.
"What they are doing now is taking power away from Congress and putting it in a group of five people," said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "What the Democrat majority is doing is they're trying to get to impeachment without having their members actually vote upon it."
Democrats defended the move, arguing that they have little recourse when confronted with "unprecedented defiance of congressional power by the president of the United States," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. The Trump administration has ordered several officials to not respond to congressional inquiries.
McGahn snubbed a demand to testify before a House committee last month and Barr has refused to turn over the un-redacted Mueller report into Russian election interference and possible obstruction by Trump.
However, the Justice Department agreed this week to provide some of the underlying evidence behind the Mueller report to the Judiciary Committee, part of an agreement to stave off the contempt of Congress vote, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler D-N.Y. Democratic lawmakers said they hadn't seen the materials and didn't yet know their scope.
It is unclear how soon the House may actually go to court to try to get a judge to enforce its subpoenas. Some Democrats suggested that the move Tuesday could be merely a negotiating tactic to encourage more cooperation from the Trump administration.
"I expect that we will not race to the courthouse" if the Justice Department continues to cooperate, said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a member of the Judiciary panel.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, R-Texas, said the current step allows for continued negotiation as the House pursues legal action.
"We've been winning in the courts," she said, referring to two recent victories in the courts for the House's multiple investigations into the Trump administration. The vote Tuesday gives "blanket authority" to pursue more legal action, she said.
Republicans suggested that Tuesday's vote could be premature if the Justice Department continues to negotiate with the House.
"This whole thing may be nothing more than sound and fury" from Democrats, said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
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