A Senate panel voted on party lines Thursday to advance President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee William Barr, setting up a confirmation vote next week that will underscore the deep partisan divide over the nomination, particularly concerning how Barr would oversee the special counsel investigation.
Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary committee have said that Barr, the former attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, is qualified for the position. In 1991, he was confirmed to it without opposition.
But Democrats said Thursday that Barr, 68, has to be scrutinized under what Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont called the "extraordinary circumstances" of 2019, as special counsel Robert Mueller has obtained 37 indictments on various charges during his investigation.
All 12 Republicans on the panel voted for Barr, while all 10 Democrats voted against him.
In supporting Barr's nomination, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said, "I think we need a steady hand at the Department of Justice."
In their opposition, Democrats cited a memo Barr wrote last year to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein before he was nominated objecting to the obstruction aspect of the Mueller probe as "fatally misconceived" and said, "Mueller should not be permitted to demand that the President submit to interrogation about alleged obstruction."
Barr argued that Trump asking former FBI director James Comey to let go of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and later firing Comey were within his powers as head of the executive branch.
On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary committee, called the memo "disqualifying," saying Barr's theory would leave the President "above the law in most respects." She also criticized Barr for not committing to publicly releasing Mueller's findings.
In his hearing, Barr pledged to release "as much as I can" of Mueller's findings to the public, to provide Mueller with the resources and time to finish the job, to not terminate Mueller without good cause and to notify Congress if he denied a major request during the investigation. He said he would resign "if someone tried to stop a bonafide, lawful investigation to try to cover up wrongdoing."
Graham said that he agreed with Barr's position, saying the President has "a lot of latitude" in firing somebody. He added that his "main goal" is to make sure that Mueller finishes his report "without interference" and trusts that Barr would "share as much as he reasonably can," while protecting confidential information.
In January, two senators on the committee, Sens. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, introduced legislation requiring a special counsel to submit a report to Congress. On Thursday, Sen. John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said that he would vote for it even though he said the "only question" is whether the Mueller report is going to leak "in toto" or in part.
"The American people are entitled to see the facts and judge for themselves," Kennedy said.