House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler is pushing to empower committee chairs to hold individuals in contempt of Congress without going to the floor for a full House vote, a move that could expedite Democrats' ability to punish anyone who defies their subpoenas but also risk further escalating tensions between congressional Democrats and the White House.
Nadler told his colleagues at a meeting Thursday that he's looking at the change as a way to avoid clogging up the floor with contempt citations in the face of near all-out resistance to Democratic subpoenas, according to a source in the room.
The New York Democrat also wants to hold a floor vote on a contempt package the week of June 4, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, told CNN on Thursday. That would include a vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt and possibly former White House counsel Don McGahn. Yet a number of Democrats are pushing to levy heavy fines on McGahn to warn future witnesses to comply with House subpoenas.
It's unclear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, will embrace this change to expedite contempt citations, since doing so could set a precedent for future House majorities to give more power to their chairmen at the expense of their leadership.
Nadler's committee has already voted to hold Barr in contempt. It has not yet done so with McGahn, but Nadler vowed to punish McGahn when he failed to testify under subpoena at a hearing this week after the White House directed him not to appear.
A faction of House Democrats have been pushing for invoking Congress' inherent contempt powers, which have not been used in nearly a century, to fine those who defy congressional subpoenas. Some Democrats have suggested McGahn could be a good test case for inherent contempt as a former White House official.
A Democratic leadership aide said the House is still considering whether to hold floor votes the first week when Congress returns in June following a one-week recess. The idea of empowering committee chairs to hold people in contempt of Congress is also under discussion, the aide said, but it has not been finalized.
House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who has been frustrated by the Trump administration's response to his subpoenas but hasn't moved to hold anyone in contempt, said Thursday that he supported the change proposed by Nadler.
Allowing committee chairmen to handle contempt charges without involving the full House has several ramifications.
It would expedite the process for committees eager to go to court to enforce their subpoenas, separating it from the whims of the floor schedule. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said allowing committees to hold individuals in contempt would avoid "clogging the floor."
"The rationale for empowering the committees to hold people in contempt is we will be able to save floor time for prescription drug reform and health care and the Equality Act and the Dream Act," Raskin said. "So we will be able to both play offense on public policy while we're defending the Constitution."
It also would help vulnerable Democrats in districts Trump won from having to repeatedly take votes on contempt. But it could dilute the impact of the contempt votes in court and public opinion if they wouldn't have the weight of the full House behind them.
Nadler declined to comment Thursday on allowing committee chairs to hold individuals in contempt or whether the House will hold contempt votes the first week in June.
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