It does most of its work in secret, can be highly partisan and its members consider it a thankless job with few political benefits. But the Senate Intelligence Committee is suddenly central to a capital increasingly rattled by Trump administration turmoil.
With House Republicans showing little appetite for pursuing an inquiry into links between Russia and the new White House and the chances remote of an independent investigative commission being created, the Senate panel has — at least for the moment — chief responsibility for getting to the bottom of events surrounding the resignation of Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser and any foreign meddling in the presidential election.
Whether members of the committee can succeed is a vexing question. The panel split bitterly over an investigation into George W. Bush-era torture of terror detainees, and Senate Republicans are leery of being lured into a Democratic effort to undermine a new Republican president who could help them achieve their long-sought legislative goals.
Senator Richard M. Burr, the North Carolina Republican who leads the committee, last month indicated some reluctance about pursuing contacts between the Trump team and Russia before he and Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, who has taken over the top Democratic spot on the panel, one day later issued a letter saying the committee would seek to “have a full understanding of the scope of Russian intelligence activities impacting the United States.” The clear sense on Capitol Hill was that Mr. Warner had dragged his Republican colleague into accepting an aggressive inquiry.
Committee members of both parties now say they understand the magnitude of the suspicions surrounding the Russian accusations and believe they can work together. As the Senate voted Tuesday morning, Republican members of the panel huddled on the Senate floor to plot their way forward.
Mr. Warner said he and Mr. Burr agree the committee needs to take its investigation “where the intelligence leads us.”
“I don’t think there is anything I have been involved in in my tenure in the Senate that is as important as this,” Mr. Warner said. “This is about our basic democratic processes.”
Some of his fellow Democrats are not happy that the bulk of the inquiry will remain the purview of the intelligence panel given that much of its deliberations are conducted in secure rooms of the Capitol complex, away from the prying eyes of the news media and the public. Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said that is a principal reason Republicans want to relegate it to the intelligence panel, and she called on Republicans to put aside a desire to protect President Trump and to create a special committee to “investigate this matter in a thorough, public and responsible way.”
“Republicans need to look in the mirror and do a gut check,” she said. At the moment, Republican leaders seem to be in no mood to add to the furor surrounding the White House by forging ahead with such a special panel, pointing instead to what Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, called the “broad discretion” the committee has to look at intelligence matters.
Creating a special committee or commission would require the consent of both parties, and the idea is more likely to gain traction if the Intelligence Committee or others in Congress pursuing questions about Russia uncover compelling evidence that would make it hard to resist demands for a deeper, more public investigation. The special national commission on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was created only after a special joint investigation by the intelligence committees of the House and Senate conducted its own inquiry that raised new questions.
Members of the intelligence panel have multiple motivations for taking a forceful stance after Mr. Flynn’s resignation. Given heightened attention to the issue, lawmakers know they risk losing control of the investigation if they are seen as not being aggressive. Neither Democrats nor Republicans who sit on the committee — their work often unsung with constituents back home because of secrecy — want to see that.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who leads the Armed Services Committee, is also examining the administration’s relationship with Russia, though the intelligence committee has more official responsibility.
On Tuesday, Mr. McConnell said it was “highly likely” the committee’s investigation would expand beyond election interference to include Mr. Flynn’s activities. Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, predicted Mr. Flynn would be called before the panel to testify “about both postelection activities and any other activities that he would be aware of.”
Mr. Blunt, a member of the leadership with sharp political instincts, will watch along with fellow Republican senators like Susan Collins of Maine, a centrist who has challenged Mr. Trump on other issues, and Marco Rubio of Florida, a sometimes Trump critic who has urged the administration to take a hard line against Russia.
Democrats will do what they can as members of the minority party to push the investigation and try to force it into public view.
“My goal here is not to have some report that ends up on a shelf,” Mr. Warner said. “My goal is that while we protect sources and methods, have as much of this information as possible out to the public. The public deserves to know what happened, how it happened and what effects it had on our democratic process.”
As they absorbed Mr. Flynn’s resignation and looked ahead, uneasy lawmakers worried this matter and others might not end well for the administration. The beginning has not been so great, either.
-Submitted by Carl Hulse