Senate Democrats struggle to respond to Comey firing

McConnell admonishes Democrats over Comey
McConnell admonishes Democrats over Comey

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    McConnell admonishes Democrats over Comey

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McConnell admonishes Democrats over Comey 01:22

Washington (CNN)One day after the surprise firing of James Comey, angry but out-of-power Senate Democrats struggled to find effective responses to protest the former FBI director's dismissal -- and more importantly to ensure that the bureau's investigation into Russia that he was overseeing will continue.

"I feel passionately about that," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, on the need to investigate what happened to Comey and why. "This is a moment in time that I think is critically important."
But whether that passion will translate into tough moves to grind Senate action to a halt until Democrats' demands are met remains unclear, as Democrats are divided over whether those types of moves would be productive or if they might backfire.
During a private 90-minute session in the Capitol, Democrats weighed using procedural tactics to stall Senate business until a special counsel gets named to oversee the probe or to try to block a new FBI director from getting confirmed. But they struggled to find consensus and left the meeting unsure of their next steps.
    "We have some ideas and you'll hear from us soon," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, as he blew past reporters after the meeting.
    When the chamber opened Wednesday morning, Schumer asked all his fellow Democratic senators to sit behind him at their desks as a sign of unity and strength.
    "If there was ever a time when the circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now," Schumer said.
    But the move meant that the Democrats were forced to listen in person to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reject their key demand for a special investigator. McConnell argued the existing FBI probe would continue under a new director, as would a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigation that is examining alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
    "A new investigation," McConnell said, "could only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done, but also to let this body and the national security community to develop the countermeasures and warfighting doctrine to see that it doesn't occur again."
    Schumer called for a "closed and if necessary classified all-senators" briefing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein -- the officials who helped carry out Comey's firing -- to explain their timing and reasoning for the action. Some Republican senators said they were open to such a briefing, but GOP leaders did not commit to scheduling one.
    Schumer, who for some time had called on Rosenstein to appoint a special prosecutor since Sessions had recused himself from the probe into possible collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign, reversed course. In a second speech on the floor in the afternoon he said Democrats had decided Rosenstein was too tainted by the controversial firing of Comey that he helped orchestrate.
    "Mr. Rosenstein should not be the one to appoint a special prosecutor; that responsibility should go to the highest serving career civil servant at the DOJ," Schumer said.

    Limiting hearings to 2 hours

    Outside of a flurry of floor speeches and media appearances decrying the firing, the one tangible action Democrats took was employing an occasionally-used procedure to block committees from meeting after the Senate is in session for more than two hours.
    Republicans warned Democrats their use of the "two-hour rule" could backfire on them because it meant Democrats would shut down key national security hearings related to China, North Korea, cyber warfare and even Russian influence.
    "Due to the Democrats obstructing normal business in the Senate, I have been forced to postpone this afternoon's Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee hearing," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, in a statement announcing the hearing was off.
    The issue becomes more complex Thursday when the Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hold its high-profile worldwide threats hearing where Comey was to testify, had he not been fired. Other top intelligence officials will testify, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and new Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
    There is no doubt Republicans would blast Democrats if they shut down the hearing.
    A frustrated Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, pleaded with Democrats to let the Aging Committee she chairs go ahead with a hearing on health care issues for the elderly, for which several witnesses had flown in from out of town to testify.
    "This makes no sense whatsoever, this is an example of the dysfunction of the Senate," she said after Schumer objected to her request.
    Democrats seized on the handful of Republican senators who raised doubts with President Donald Trump's firing but there was little evidence of a large enough backlash to make a difference.
    "I think this is 12 hours old," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut. "We have to give a little bit of time for the Republicans to have their own conversation and perhaps rise to the occasion."
    Murphy said Democrats are pushing not only for a special counsel but "to get some assurances from Republicans colleagues that they are going to have a high standard for Comey's replacement. You know, (Republican New Jersey Gov.) Chris Christie isn't going to be his replacement, it will be a serious prosecutor who will commit to continuing the investigation."
    Tester acknowledged Democrats hadn't settled on a strategy yet, but said they would soon.
    "I think we're going to do what we can reasonably do to keep this investigation forward. Because we all believe that it takes pressure points," he said. "I was not encouraged by what I heard from Sen. McConnell this morning he tried to politicize everything talked about. This is not the time for politics -- it's just not. It's time for statesmanship."