Democratic Senators Look To Make Headlines In Barr Hearing

May 1, 2019
Originally published on May 1, 2019 10:46 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

U.S. Attorney General William Barr will testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee today about how he handled the Mueller report. The hearing will also give three presidential candidates another chance to make some headlines. Here's NPR's Scott Detrow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Speaking to NBC's "Meet The Press" this weekend, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar made it clear she's got a game plan for the hearing.

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AMY KLOBUCHAR: And I'm going to be asking him not only why did his administration decide to go to court to get rid of the Affordable Care Act and deny millions of Americans coverage, but also, why did he not allow this report to come out in full? And what is he doing about Russia?

DETROW: It's a lot of ground to cover for the relatively short window senators have to question witnesses. But Klobuchar knows firsthand how a sharp question or exchange in a high-profile hearing can make news in the way that a lot of other congressional business just doesn't. Last fall, millions of people were watching live when she questioned Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about whether or not he had ever blacked out from drinking.

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KLOBUCHAR: Could you answer the question, judge, and just - to - you've - that's not happened. Is that your answer?

BRETT KAVANAUGH: Yeah, and I'm curious if you have.

KLOBUCHAR: I have no drinking problem, judge.

KAVANAUGH: Yeah, nor do I.

KLOBUCHAR: OK.

DETROW: It's something Klobuchar has talked about campaigning for president and also something voters have repeatedly brought up. During a recent CNN town hall, a voter asked about the hearing, saying a lot of people had formed opinions about Klobuchar that day.

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KLOBUCHAR: But I think you saw at that moment - if any of you watched that - that you can be strong and firm, but you don't have to go down and act like he did to be in public service in this country.

DETROW: The Judiciary Committee has always been one of the more high-profile Senate posts. Along with the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, it's one of the assignments lawmakers seek out when they're trying to raise their profile. Outside of the Kavanaugh confirmation, Senator Kamala Harris has repeatedly used committee hearings to make headlines. She grilled witnesses like Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the Intelligence Committee's Russia hearings.

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KAMALA HARRIS: Sir, I have just a few...

JEFF SESSIONS: Will you let me qualify? If you - if I don't qualify, you'll accuse me of lying. So I need to be correct as best I can.

HARRIS: I do want you to be honest.

SESSIONS: And I'm not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.

DETROW: But as the third candidate on the Judiciary Committee, Cory Booker, found out last year, sometimes those aggressive moments can backfire. During the first round of the Kavanaugh hearings, he threatened to release confidential documents, even if it meant being expelled from the Senate.

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CORY BOOKER: This is about the closest I'll probably ever have in my life to an I am Spartacus moment.

DETROW: The documents in question had already been cleared for release. Republicans like Texas Senator John Cornyn criticized him in the moment.

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JOHN CORNYN: Running for president is no excuse for violating the rules of the Senate.

DETROW: And the so-called Spartacus moment has remained a conservative critique of Booker. "The View" co-host Meghan McCain grilled him on it the first day of his presidential campaign.

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MEGHAN MCCAIN: How do you convince people, especially on the left, that you're authentic and that you're not a phony - especially during this time - and this isn't just, you know, sort of a political stunt, if you will?

BOOKER: Well, you can't speak to authenticity. No. You've just got to be who you are. And there are going to be critics all the time.

DETROW: And Booker hasn't changed his approach. During William Barr's confirmation hearing earlier this year, Booker pressed him on the tough-on-crime tactics Barr promoted during his first stint as attorney general.

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BOOKER: And sir, I just want to tell you I was a young black guy in 1990s. I was a 20-something-year-old and experienced a dramatically different justice system in the treatment that I received.

DETROW: Booker, Harris and Klobuchar will all get a chance to question Barr today and do so on a topic that has dominated the national political conversation for the past two years.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.