Tempers exploded at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Thursday before Democrats voted to subpoena a major conservative donor and a prominent conservative activist linked to the Supreme Court’s ethics scandals.
The Republican members of the committee stormed out of the hearing room in the Hart Building shortly before Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called a vote on authorizing the subpoenas.
The motion passed with 11 Democratic votes. Not a single Republican was left in the room by the time the roll call ended.
Durbin went ahead with the vote shortly before noon to prevent Republicans from delaying it until next week by invoking a rule to limit committee meetings to two hours.
The meeting came after weeks of partisan fighting among members of the Judiciary Committee over plans to subpoena conservative donor Harlan Crow and activist Leonard Leo, the co-chairman of the Federalist Society, in response to reporting by ProPublica that revealed the two men played roles in taking conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito on luxury vacations.
Durbin and federal courts subcommittee Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) advanced the subpoenas after Crow and Leo refused to cooperate with their investigation into Supreme Court ethics.
Durbin argued that his committee staff had worked for “months” to try to get information from Crow and Leo about gifts and personal hospitality extended to Thomas and Alito.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) argued after the meeting that the subpoenas are “invalid” because they were issued in violation of Senate and committee rules.
Cruz pointed out that the vote to authorize the subpoenas didn’t conclude until a few minutes after noon, violating the two-hour rule that requires committees to wrap up all business within two hours unless waived.
“Under the rules, the subpoena is not valid,” Cruz declared. “The two-hour rule says you have to be concluded with your business, that nothing that happens after two hours is valid. And when they actually issued the subpoena, it was 12:02.”
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Cruz and Lee further argued that the Durbin approved the subpoenas without a quorum being present because Republicans walked out of the hearing room.
“Under the rules, they have to have a quorum. We denied them a quorum. Republicans left the room and so when they voted on the subpoenas, there were only Democrats in the room,” Cruz said.
The approval of the subpoenas are largely symbolic because it would require 60 votes on the Senate floor to enforce them and not a single GOP senator has indicated that he or she would vote for such an action.
Crow’s office argued the subpoenas are invalid because senators approved it in violation of the Judiciary Committee’s rules.
“The Judiciary Committee Democrats’ violation of the committee’s own rules to issue an invalid subpoena further demonstrates the unlawful and partisan nature of this investigation,” Crow’s office said in a statement. “Despite the unenforceability of the subpoena, Mr. Crow remains willing to engage with the committee in good faith, just as he has consistently done throughout this process.”
Senators on the committee say that Crow volunteered to share five years’ worth of records with the committee but Democratic staff has asked for records going back 25 years.
Leo in a statement accused Democrats on the committee of waging an all-out assault on the Supreme Court.
“Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats have been destroying the Supreme Court; now they are destroying the Senate. I will not cooperate with this unlawful campaign of political retribution,” he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) set the tone of the meeting, calling the authorization of subpoenas “garbage” and Democratic efforts to address the court’s ethics a “complete joke” and “crap.”
“I don’t know who you’re trying to please. I don’t know what group is going to feel better because we’re doing this on your side but you’re pleasing like none of us,” Graham fumed. “This is about an ongoing effort to destroy this court, to destroy [conservative Justice] Clarence Thomas’s reputation.”
Senate Republicans filed 177 amendments in an effort to slow down the subpoenas.
Republican senators then accused Durbin at the outset of the meeting of “destroying” the panel’s collegial relations by refusing to recognize them to speak against two judicial nominees who had come before the committee previously but had to be voted on again Thursday because of a procedural technicality.
“You want us to shut up, is that what you’re saying?” demanded Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).
“We want to tell you again why these nominees are awful,” Graham chimed in.
“Mr. Chairman, you just destroyed one of the most important committees in the United States Senate,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “Congratulations on destroying the United States Senate Judiciary Committee.”
Republicans accused Durbin of violating the committee’s Rule IV, which requires the committee to hold a roll call vote before ending debate on a matter and bringing that matter to a vote.
But Durbin explained the two nominees — Mustafa Taher Kasubhai, to be U.S. district judge for the District of Oregon, and Eumi Lee, to be U.S. district judge for the Northern District of California — had already been debated at length and voted on by the committee.
He said that the nominees needed another vote on technical grounds because two Democratic senators had previously voted for them by proxy and then later asked unanimous consent to be recorded as present and voting. Republicans on the panel, however, raised an objection with the Senate parliamentarian, wiping out those earlier votes on Kasubhai and Lee.
Durbin defended his decision to call new votes on the nominees without a third round of debate by invoking what he said were precedents set by then-Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) by forcing a vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and by then-Chair Graham in 2019 by forcing a vote on immigration legislation.
The panel approved the nominations of Kasubhai and Lee on party-line votes, with each receiving 11 “yes” votes.
— Updated on Dec. 1 at 2:34 p.m.