Last week’s Supreme Court nomination hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch likely weren't the most interesting Senate business on the second floor of the Hart Office Building.
That’s where the Senate Intelligence Committee conducts its meetings in a secure facility just around the corner from where the Judiciary Committee was meeting.
The Intelligence panel is investigating Russian use of active measures to influence the 2016 presidential election, including potential interactions between associates of President Donald Trump and Russian entities.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, have been presenting a united front throughout the investigation, and they appeared together Wednesday afternoon to continue the show of bipartisan cooperation.
Warner, a Virginia Democrat, placing his hand on Burr’s back, stepped to the microphone and said, “I have confidence that Richard Burr — that we, together with the members of the committee, are going to get to the bottom of this. If you get nothing else from today, take that statement to the bank.”
Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said the committee would have a “lengthy” list of witnesses to interview behind closed doors, with the panel leadership willing to issue subpoenas.
“This one is one of the biggest investigations the Hill has seen in my time here,” Burr said, who arrived as a House member in 1995.
Each new controversy swirling around House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes makes it more likely that the Senate panel will be the only place on Capitol Hill that produces a credible report on the extent of any Russian meddling.
The Senate’s committee members are well aware of that, even if they don’t always want to comment specifically on the chaos in the House.
Before reporters began peppering the leaders of the Senate panel with questions, the chairman laid down some ground rules.
“We will not take questions on the House Intelligence Committee,” Burr said.
Pressed on his ability to conduct an impartial investigation given that he was named a Trump adviser before the president took office, the North Carolina Republican conceded that he did vote for Trump last fall.
“I’ll do something I’ve never done. I’ll admit that I voted for him. We always hide who we vote for,” Burr said. “That’s part of the democratic process, but I’ve got a job in the United States Senate, and I take that job extremely seriously. It overrides any personal beliefs that I have or loyalties that I might have.”
Burr also said the panel was devoting seven full-time staffers to the Russia inquiry and they were seeking information from intelligence authorities that the committee generally has not needed in the past.
“We’re basically trying to get access that even goes beyond what the gang of eight has had … in terms of raw products,” Warner said, referring to the top congressional leaders and Intelligence panel leaders in each chamber. “Every committee member has said that they’ve got to see or know some of this information before they can sign their name on a finished product.”
Burr said the committee always asks nominees appearing before the panel, such as those up for positions like CIA director or director of national intelligence, if they are willing to provide raw material, although the committee seldom asks for it.
“We are in a very rare time, and we will test some people to see if in fact their commitment is 100 percent correct,” Burr said.
The Senate committee will hold its first public hearing as part of the probe Thursday afternoon. That meeting will include testimony from retired Gen. Keith Alexander, a former head of the National Security Agency.
Sen. James Lankford, a Senate Intelligence member, has stressed that Burr and Warner share information as a matter of course. That is a sharp contrast to Nunes, who has not shared information with even his Democratic counterpart on the House panel, ranking member Adam B. Schiff.
“They work together hand in hand. They share information back and forth. It’s a loss of trust if one of them has information that the one doesn’t,” Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, said on CNN.
Burr and Warner made that clear.
“He usually knows my sources before I do,” Burr said, before Warner quipped that the two talk regularly by cell phone.
“I think the Senate Intelligence Committee is trying very hard to conduct its investigation in a bipartisan and responsible way that will produce a report that people will have confidence in,” Majority Whip John Cornyn told Roll Call.
The Texas Republican joined the Intelligence Committee at the start of this Congress.
“History will judge severely those of us in this body tasked with finding the whole truth and determining conclusively whether or not associates of the Trump campaign cooperated or coordinated with this effort to undermine our American democracy,” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said in a floor speech Tuesday.
Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, another member of the panel, told Roll Call that he was spending roughly eight hours a week on the probe.
“I’m pleased with the direction that the Intelligence Committee in the Senate is doing its work. It’s methodical, it’s professional, it’s designed to arrive at the truth no matter where it might lead us,” Rubio said. “It’s probably not going to move as fast as some of the headline writers want us to move, but in the end, the American people will have confidence that the product we produce is accurate.”
In a statement Lankford issued after Burr and Warner wrapped up their Wednesday news conference, he asserted that the panel would produce a report with signatures from Democrats and Republicans.
“At the end of the investigation, there will be a full bipartisan report that both Democrats and Republicans will sign off on. There’s no need to entertain the possibility of an independent investigator or special commission until after our Intelligence Committee and the FBI complete their work,” Lankford said.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.