Hunter Biden. Anthony Fauci. Afghanistan. The border.
As Senate Republicans feel increasingly bullish about November, when they are fighting to regain control of Congress, they are floating using a new majority to dig into President Biden and his administration starting in 2023.
The potential probes underscore both the headaches awaiting Democrats if the House or Senate flips heading into 2024 but also the shifting power dynamics within the Senate GOP conference, where a stream of retirements of more pragmatic-minded senators is elevating newer, more combative Republicans.
“I’m sure there will be plenty of ingenious individuals thinking about what to do on those committees,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
Braun, while noting he didn’t have a pet investigation, pointed to Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) as two examples of GOP senators who could have “some real interest in looking into stuff that has not been attended to.”
Johnson, if he wins his reelection bid in November, is poised to chair the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Johnson is prevented because of term limits from chairing the full committee again, but the subcommittee gavel comes with a crucial element: subpoena authority.
Asked if there were overlooked issues that he would want to probe, Johnson appeared eager to dig in.
“Like everything?” he told The Hill. “It’s like a mosquito in a nudist colony. It’s a target-rich environment.”
Johnson pointed to the administration’s handling of the coronavirus as one area ripe for investigation. Johnson himself has caught flak, and fed Democratic campaign attacks, as one of the most vocal skeptics within the Senate GOP conference of public health measures amid the pandemic, which has killed more than 970,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“There’s so much more in terms of what happened with our federal health agencies that we need to explore,” Johnson said.
Johnson views himself as having broad jurisdictional boundaries, and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s boundary lines are more amorphous than those of other panels because it combines homeland security with a much broader category of government oversight.
Johnson isn’t alone in wanting to dig into the coronavirus response.
Paul, a libertarian-leaning GOP senator who at times is a gnat for Senate GOP leadership, is in line to become the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee if Republicans win the majority.
Paul atop the committee would be a significant shift. Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), currently the top Republican on the panel, is retiring after this year and has broken with Paul on a number of key issues. Former Sen. Lamar Alexander(Tenn.), who preceded Burr as the top Republican on the committee but retired after 2020, was a close ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and was known for his ability to cut bipartisan deals.
Paul has had high-profile tangles with Fauci during committee hearings and promised to investigate and subpoena Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, if he finds himself with a gavel next year.
“If we win in November, if I'm chairman of a committee, if I have subpoena power, we'll go after every one of [Fauci's] records,” Paul said earlier this year.
Under HELP Committee rules, the committee or a subcommittee can issue subpoenas, take sworn testimony or meet with subpoenaed witnesses “only if such investigative activity has been authorized by majority vote of the committee.”
The size of a GOP majority would determine the size of the GOP majority on the panel. But depending on who Paul wants to subpoena or investigate, getting a majority could prove tricky because the HELP Committee includes more moderate GOP senators such as Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah).
Romney, Murkowski, Collins, Burr and Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) joined with Democrats on the committee to oppose Paul’s attempt last week to attach his proposal eliminating Fauci’s job and dividing it into three positions into a pandemic relief bill.
It’s not just the coronavirus that Republicans want to use their majority to dig into.
Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), who currently leads the Senate GOP campaign arm, pointed to a long-running Republican focal point: the border. Oversight of the border would likely fall under the jurisdiction of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, though immigration issues also overlap with the Senate Judiciary Committee.
And Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — who, like Scott, is viewed as having White House ambitions — pointed back to the administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, with the quick fall of Kabul appearing to catch the U.S. government off guard.
Hawley pointed to a report from the U.S. military obtained by The Washington Post, which underscored tension between U.S. troops and administration officials.
“We need oversight hearings on this — on what they have found and on the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Hawley said in an interview. “I would favor a select committee that is bipartisan, but I think Congress needs to do some oversight.”
It’s not just committee investigations that could cause headaches for the administration in a GOP-controlled Congress.
Lawmakers extended the debt ceiling earlier this year, with aides estimating they don’t hit an “X” date until 2023, which could mean Biden has to negotiate with a GOP-controlled House or Senate. But House Republicans fumed over a Senate-negotiated deal to allow the debt ceiling to clear by a simple majority. The rule setting up the one-time exemption to the filibuster had to overcome the 60-vote hurdle, though most Senate Republicans opposed it.
Republicans could also use their majority to revive old investigations.
Johnson floated Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son, as one potential area for investigation. Johnson and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) previously teamed up ahead of the 2020 election to dig into Hunter Biden as part of a sweeping probe that also touched on the start of the FBI's Russia probe.
The Republican probe sparked pushback from Democrats, who warned that the GOP senators were at risk of spreading Russian misinformation, and skepticism from some of their Republican colleagues. Though Grassley and Johnson issued an interim report in 2020, Johnson indicated that work remained, including wanting more of Hunter Biden’s travel records and frustration with the pace of responses from federal agencies. “I’d kind of like that to wrap that up,” Johnson said, “We’ve been trying to get his travel records for a couple of years now.” “The lack of transparency in these agencies.
The lack of their willingness to comply with legitimate congressional oversight,” he added. “I mean, I think that’s an investigation right there. ... Why can’t Congress conduct legitimate oversight anymore?”
Any attempt by Johnson to revive the investigation would make him a magnet for Democratic criticism.
David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, warned that GOP Senate candidates would be held accountable for a “toxic agenda” heading into November. “Republicans have let voters know exactly what they can expect from a GOP Senate majority: higher taxes on seniors and working families, ending Medicare and Social Security, and a new effort to spike health care costs and gut coverage protections for pre-existing conditions,” Bergstein said in a statement to The Hill.
But Johnson shrugged off a question about whether reviving the probe risked making him the spotlight instead of the Biden administration, where GOP leaders would prefer to keep the focus.
“I’ll be that mosquito,” he said. “Hard to tell what targets I might pick. They’ll all be juicy.”