By MARY CLARE JALONICK and LISA MASCARO Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The House has approved a resolution that will make it easier to file lawsuits against the Trump administration when officials defy subpoenas.
The legislation passed 229-191, along party lines.
It empowers Democrats to take legal action to enforce subpoenas against Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn. It also allows committee chairmen to take future legal action without a vote of the full House, as long as they have approval from a bipartisan group of House leaders.
Tuesday's vote reflects an evolving strategy for Democrats, who have moved toward lawsuits and away from criminal contempt as they investigate President Donald Trump and his administration.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats "need answers on the questions left unanswered" by special counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia report.
It's unclear how quickly Democrats will act once the resolution is approved. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler signaled Monday that they will hold off on suing Barr after the panel struck a deal with the Justice Department to receive some underlying materials from Mueller's report. Nadler said the Justice Department will provide some of Mueller's "most important files" and all members of the committee will be able to view them.
In response to the agreement, Nadler said the panel will not vote to hold Barr in criminal contempt, for now. But the House will still vote Tuesday on the resolution to authorize civil legal action.
That was the expected outcome even before the deal, as Democrats have shifted their strategy toward lawsuits and away from criminal contempt. Criminal contempt would be referred to the Justice Department, where it would certainly be rejected. And Democrats have been encouraged by some early wins in court as Trump has broadly fought congressional oversight.
Nadler said he would give the Justice Department some time to comply.
"If the department proceeds in good faith and we are able to obtain everything that we need, then there will be no need to take further steps," Nadler said in a statement. "If important information is held back, then we will have no choice but to enforce our subpoena in court and consider other remedies."
A court case could come more quickly for McGahn, who has defied subpoenas for documents and testimony at the behest of the White House.
Democrats are ramping up action related to Mueller's Trump-Russia probe this week as they try to focus more public attention on the report, which was released in redacted form in April. Mueller wrote that there was not enough evidence to establish that there was a conspiracy between Trump's campaign and Russia, the original question that launched the investigation, but he also said he could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice. The report examined several episodes in which Trump attempted to influence Mueller's probe.
On Monday, the Judiciary panel heard testimony from John Dean, a White House counsel under Richard Nixon who helped bring down his presidency. Dean testified that Mueller has provided Congress with a "road map" for investigating Trump.
He said he saw parallels between Mueller's findings regarding Trump and those of congressional investigators looking into Nixon's administration decades ago. He pointed to the way the presidents used their pardon power in an attempt to influence witness testimony, and their efforts to seize control of the investigation and direct the efforts of prosecutors.
Trump, apparently watching the televised hearing, tweeted, "Can't believe they are bringing in John Dean, the disgraced Nixon White House Counsel." He added his oft-repeated claim, "No Collusion - No Obstruction!"
The focus on Mueller will continue Wednesday, when the House Intelligence Committee is scheduled to review the counterintelligence implications of Russia's interference in the 2016 election, as detailed in Mueller's report.
The procession of hearings and votes in the week ahead is partly designed to mollify anxious Democrats who have tried to pressure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to begin impeachment proceedings immediately. Pelosi, D-Calif., prefers to continue the investigations and see where they lead.
Republicans have criticized the hearings as a waste of time and have called for Democrats to move on.
“The chairman wants to talk about anything that might sway opinion against the president before the 2020 election,” Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said at Monday’s hearing. “That’s why these proceedings are moving so slowly: Robert Mueller closed up shop a little too early in the election cycle.”