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Democrats' Oversight Agenda


Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker goes before the House Judiciary Committee today. Whether he will answer their more sensitive questions about the special counsel's Russia investigation is another matter. House Democrats have threatened to subpoena him if he didn't show up. NPR's Kelsey Snell is here in the studio this morning.

Hi, Kelsey.


MARTIN: So what do we know about the line of questioning that the judiciary committee is going to pose to Whitaker?

SNELL: Well, we know that they have a lot of questions. And the primary thing that we'll probably hear them ask about is the Russia investigation. But I understand Democrats also want to ask things about immigration policy and the way the administration plans to handle these cases, not defending the Affordable Care Act in federal court.

But, again, this is going to be a lot about Russia. They want to ask him specifically about the circumstances around President Trump's firing of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and whether that replacement was intended to interfere into the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. And I would imagine that you will hear that over and over and over again.

MARTIN: This hearing with Whitaker comes at the end of a week where Democrats started to follow through on campaign promises that they had made to investigate Trump and the Trump administration. One of those promises was to look into the president's tax returns. Is that going to be part of this oversight push?

SNELL: Yeah, it is. And they started to, actually, begin the process of looking into the taxes in a hearing yesterday. But it's starting out really slow. And we kind of expect that it'll continue at that pace, in part, because there are concerns that going too far too fast could be politically perilous, essentially. Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged a careful approach in a press conference yesterday. And the hearing that they did yesterday was kind of - I don't know - academic.

They had a lot of think tank people talking about the law around the president's tax returns because it is a pretty serious thing to go after somebody's private tax information and put it out there publicly. The committee overseeing this, the Ways and Means Committee, has that legal authority. But they want to use that judiciously.

I think, though, that this whole question is part of a broader theme in the House right now, where Democrats are starting to flex their muscles and show what it will really be like to have Democrats in charge of the House and in opposition, in many ways, to this president.

MARTIN: They also have to manage this balancing act, right? Like, on the one hand, they want to move forward with aggressive investigations into the administration. But they also have other policy priorities, I imagine, they want to push through.

SNELL: Yeah. They talk about lowering prescription drug prices. And they talk about doing something on infrastructure and doing something on climate change. But, really, it's hard to do that for Democrats because they really only control the House of Representatives. They can't get things passed in the Senate. And they don't control the White House.

So when it comes down to it, investigations are a way for them to put their stamp on a lot of issues that they care about. They held hearings on guns. We expect them to do more on the environment. They are going to talk about child separation policy at the border. It is their way to interact with the White House and kind of hold the president accountable for policies of the last two years.

MARTIN: So meanwhile - and that's a big meanwhile...

SNELL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: There's a group of bipartisan lawmakers who have been tasked with trying to find a solution to the whole border wall debate in order to prevent yet another government shutdown. Can you get us up to speed on where those negotiations are right now?

SNELL: Yeah, they - that group of - they call themselves conferees. They have been talking for over a week now. And they say that things are going well. One of the top negotiators, Richard Shelby of Alabama, met with President Trump yesterday, came back and said he thought things were going well and that he was feeling positive. But they only have a week. Their deadline is a week from today - February 15. And that doesn't give them a lot of time.

So I've heard from many people that they think it may - they might need a short extension if they're going to hash out a deal in time to keep the government open. I am told, however, nobody wants a shutdown. And so (laughter) they're doing everything they can to avoid another situation like we saw.

MARTIN: Did anyone really want one the first time, though?

SNELL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I guess we'll wait and see. NPR's Kelsey Snell, thanks so much.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.