Senate Republicans Look to Refocus on Agenda

Appointment of special counsel for Russia probe provides cover

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives in the Capitol to brief all 100 Senators on the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives in the Capitol to brief all 100 Senators on the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 18, 2017 at 4:00pm

Senate Republicans see the appointment of a special counsel to oversee the investigation into Russian influence of the 2016 elections as an opportunity to refocus attention on their legislative agenda.

Conversations on Capitol Hill this week have been dominated by a series of bombshell reports alleging that President Donald Trump shared sensitive information with Russian officials in Oval Office and tried to influence an FBI investigation into one of his former top aides.

But with the appointment on Wednesday evening of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel for the Russia probe, GOP members found a safety net and now want to shift attention back to their attempts to overhaul both the U.S. health care system and tax code.

“It’s everything all the Democrats were requesting,” Senate Republican Conference Chair John Thune of South Dakota told Roll Call. “Hopefully we can get back to the agenda.”

The immediate show of support from Republicans after the Mueller announcement underscores how eager the conference was to shift attention from the Senate probe and back to the federal investigation.

“We need to recognize our different and distinct role. We still have oversight responsibility,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told Roll Call. “But we’re not the FBI, we’re not the special counsel and we’re not the Department of Justice.”

While the investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee will continue, several lawmakers said the panel’s role may be reduced with the appointment of a special counsel.

“I think it pretty well at the minimum limits it, maybe just takes us out of the game,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. told reporters. After Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein briefed the Senate, Graham said his colleagues seemed surprised by how much the appointment of the special counsel may limit the ability of senators to get access to information.

“There was shock in the room about how the limitations actually applied to us now,” Graham said.

The GOP has largely downplayed the effect the turmoil at the White House has had on their legislative ambitions. Some members said any hindrance would not occur until much later in the process.

“It’s not so much the impact directly on negotiations on certain pieces of legislation. It’s the effect when we try to pass it and we aren’t …a t that stage yet,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz, said. 

But there are signs that the chaotic week has had an impact on the moralE of members who are eager to put the scandals of the administration behind them.

The Mueller appointment may have provided the cover Republicans were seeking.

“We can get back to the normal business of legislating,” Graham said.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this story.