Democrats ponder power of the purse to get full Mueller report

Attorney General William Barr is greeted by full committee chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., before a House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the Department of Justice's budget request for Fiscal Year 2020 on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Top Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee aren’t ready to wield their power over Justice Department funding to pressure Attorney General William Barr to provide the full special counsel report from Robert S. Mueller III — but they aren’t ruling it out either.

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the DOJ budget, told reporters that appropriators could prescribe that no dollars be used to block Mueller’s full report from being released — not that he’s saying that would happen.

“I would consider whatever it takes to get people to see this report,” the New York Democrat said after a Justice Department budget hearing Tuesday. “This report is too important for all of us, including you people behind the cameras.”

A subpoena fight could wind up in the courts for years, and a Congressional Research Service report noted that Congress could use other powers such as withholding appropriations to encourage disclosure of the Mueller report.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey took a more cautious approach Tuesday, saying she had to balance the report with the important law enforcement and other priorities in the DOJ budget.

“Oh, I can put in all kinds of language there,” the New York Democrat told reporters. “But I would hope my budget is there to protect the people of the United States, and protect the Affordable Care Act, and protect the rights of citizens who worry about how they’re going to be treated in the courts.”

Lowey said the Judiciary Committee has the responsibility and right to subpoena the full report and fight to see any redacted information. And she noted that Congress hasn’t seen yet what Barr will release.

Barr on Tuesday told lawmakers on the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee that he will be in a position to release a version of the special counsel report on Russian interference in the 2016 election “within a week,” with color-coded notes explaining why he redacted any information. House Democrats have demanded to see the full, unredacted report.

“What happens, and what the next step is, we’ll see,” Lowey said.

Republican appropriators said any provisions forcing Barr’s hand would not survive the Senate, particularly when Barr made clear that he is bound by law to withhold some parts of the Mueller report.

“Surely, they’re not asking him to do something that would be contrary to what the law is and just doing his job,” said Alabama Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, the top Republican on the subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department budget. “If they did it on the House side, I don’t see the Senate going anywhere with that.”

Rep. Matt Cartwright said the committee needs to be judicious in using the power of the purse to force lawmaker positions because “we have to be the sober ones in the room, we have to be the grownups here on appropriations, because we work for the American people.”

“To get into a squabble with the Justice Department, take away their funding because we don’t like one or two of their positions, that may be over the top,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “On the other hand, at this point, I’m not willing to take anything off the table.”

Watch: Barr on Mueller memo — ‘The letter speaks for itself’

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