Chairman Richard Durbin, (D-IL), attends a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC.
CNN  — 

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin ratcheted up demands for Chief Justice John Roberts to police the actions of Clarence Thomas in the wake of a new ProPublica report showing a GOP megadonor paying school tuition for a close relative of the conservative justice.

But Durbin told CNN he can’t move forward with a new ethics bill to impose a code of conduct on the justices until Sen. Dianne Feinstein returns from her illness since Republicans would have the votes to block any such legislation in his committee. Plus some Democrats on the panel, like Sen. Dick Blumenthal, want to go much further than Durbin in the Thomas probe – exposing divisions within the ranks.

But Durbin said the first step is up to Roberts.

“I hope that Chief Justice Roberts reads his story this morning and understands something has to be done,” Durbin told CNN. “The reputation of the Supreme Court is at stake here. The credibility of the court when it comes to its future and decisions as at stake and his reputation as a leader of this court is really an issue as welll.”

Durbin again rejected calls to subpoena a Supreme Court justice, saying it raises constitutional concerns. And he said that Feinstein’s absence makes moving ahead on legislation more difficult.

“It’s difficult, particularly because the Republicans have basically taken the position that they are opposed to this, they think it is political retribution by liberals against the conservative court,” Durbin said when asked about Feinstein’s absence. “I’ll just say that my feelings about the Code of Ethics, it should apply to all justices regardless of their philosophy.”

Durbin didn’t think the situation rises to a Justice Department probe. “No, I don’t think so,” he said when asked if he believed the Justice Department should investigate the matter.

But Blumenthal went much further, calling for a Justice Department probe while reiterating calls for subpoenas to Thomas and for him to testify under oath.

“The drip, drip, drip of these destructive disclosures is going to destroy the United States Supreme Court unless there is an effective proper investigation,” he said. “That’s why I continue saying that we need the Department of Justice to investigate Clarence Thomas’s apparent failure to report or misreporting.”

Blumenthal downplayed the different approaches between him and the chairman as simply a difference of views.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican on the panel, said that it was all part of a “smear attempt” by Democrats and called Harlan Crow and Thomas “honorable men.” He argued it would be unconstitutional for Congress to mandate ethics rules on justices.

Asked by CNN why he didn’t have concerns about Thomas receiving lavish gifts from a donor, Cornyn said: “Well, that’s why I say that I think the Court would do well to consider this experience in coming up with perhaps some additional reforms, but this is not something, an appropriate role for Congress.”

Two GOP senators said Thursday that the latest news about Thomas rises to the level that the Supreme Court should take a look at it – but not Congress.

Sen. Mitt Romney said the news about Crow making tuition payments for Thomas’ grandnephew is something the court should examine since it’s a separate branch of government and they have a “right and responsibility” to look into their own actions.

“The court is responsible for their own guidelines in that regard,” Romney told CNN. “I hope they’ll look – they’ll evaluate. I have no way of knowing the accuracy of that report and what’s been done but it clearly justifies taking a good look at it.”

Romney has previously told CNN that the Thomas controversy “stinks.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, a member of Senate Judiciary, told CNN that he would oppose legislation imposing a new code of ethics – and he also argued Thomas’ controversy is not different from other issues involving other justices. But he said that the court has got “work to do” to fix the public’s perception.

“I’m not going to speak to that specific instance because I could sit here and talk about other instances from other justices that the fact patterns are similar, which goes back to the point of the Supreme Court should address this and they should address it on a consensus basis,” Tillis said when asked about concerns of Thomas’ receipt of gifts from a donor.

Tillis added: “You can’t make this issue about Justice Thomas unless you’re willing to make it about any number of other justices who had very similar situations that they’re dealing with, some who are sitting on the court and some who are icons of the court who are now off of it.”