WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled Senate on Thursday advanced an effort to expand the power of the Justice Department's independent watchdog to investigate allegations of ethical violations and professional misconduct by department lawyers, overriding the objections of Attorney General William Barr.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 21-1 to approve the bipartisan measure, which unanimously passed the House last year. It would shift the responsibility for investigating lawyer misconduct from an office under Barr's supervision to the department's independent inspector general, Michael Horowitz.
"The negative ramifications of shielding attorney misconduct from inspector general scrutiny and, eventually, public scrutiny are not hypothetical," said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, the bill's lead author. He cited the failure of prosecutors to turn over mitigating evidence in the 2008 corruption trial of former Sen. Ted Stevens and limits that had been placed on Horowitz while he scrutinized the FBI's Russia investigation.
"This is a problem that Congress should want to fix," Lee added.
Lawmakers' push to expand the jurisdiction and powers of the department's inspector general predates the Trump administration, but its advance is particularly noteworthy at a time when Barr is already under intense scrutiny for prosecutorial and personnel decisions that critics say smack of political motivation. This week, two department lawyers accused Barr and other department leaders of politicizing criminal and antitrust cases, issues that Democrats say ought to be under the inspector general's jurisdiction.
It also coincides with a broad campaign by President Donald Trump to impose greater political control over independent inspectors general, including a flurry of firings and demotions and the unprecedented decision to install political appointees who remain under the control of the agency heads they are supposed to police.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Attorneys general of both parties have objected to giving the inspector general the authority to investigate allegations of misconduct and ethical violations by department lawyers. One concern is that there would be pressure to open investigations into every decision the Justice Department makes in politically charged matters, inhibiting its legitimate authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion.
Over the past few weeks, Barr and Jeffrey Rosen, the deputy attorney general, personally lobbied Lee and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the committee's chairman, while staff members in the department's Offices of Legislative Affairs and Legal Policy worked to persuade other committee members to modify it, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.
Barr argued that no bill should allow the inspector general to supersede his existing powers and that the attorney general must be fully responsible for all investigations and indictments, according to multiple people briefed on the conversations. His own compromise suggestions were rejected, they said.
The department was unsuccessful. Senators on the panel nearly unanimously supported the bill and opposed an amendment by Graham that would have given Barr the authority to veto investigations proposed by the inspector general that he felt were inappropriate second-guessing of acts of prosecutorial discretion.
Barr will now have to persuade Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, not to allow a final vote -- which would most likely result in a veto-proof bipartisan majority -- or package the measure with a separate must-pass bill.
Republicans said they were supporting the legislation despite their high regard for Barr. Democrats portrayed it as a tool that could help hold an attorney general they believe is improperly and corruptly contorting the justice system for Trump's political gain.
"Developments of the last week, especially the termination of the U.S. attorney of the Southern District of New York, make it even clearer how much this legislation is needed," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.