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WASHINGTON When Richard J.

Durbin joined the Senate in 1997, his junior status r

elegated him to an unenviable task: serving in the minority on the Governmental
Affairs Committee as the Republican-led panel exhaustively examined claims of an
insidious Chinese plot to help President Bill Clinton in the 1996 elections.
We went on for months in public hearing, said Mr. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, wh
o does not remember the highly partisan sessions very fondly. Months and months.
Republicans abruptly abandoned the inquiry when polls suggested the public was t
urning against it, and the investigation was generally regarded as a bust.
But the ability of Republicans to convene a summerlong media spectacle unfavorab
le to the White House underscores a fundamental truth as relevant today as it wa
s then: Being in the majority matters, both in starting an investigation and, so
metimes as important, in stopping one.
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Despite new questions about contacts between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and
a top Russian diplomat, House and Senate Republicans remain unwilling to budge f
rom their opposition to a special bipartisan inquiry into the extent of Russian
meddling in the 2016 election, and into any connections to President Trump or th
ose close to him. Changing their mind would probably require significant revelat
ions of the sort that would make their current stance politically untenable.
Even as Mr. Sessions recused himself on Thursday from any such investigation by
the Justice Department, his former Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill were ad
amant that any improper conduct and they remain very skeptical that there was an
y was best investigated by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has already
begun its work.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is the best place to determine the facts regard
ing Russian involvement in our elections, said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who
sits on the panel and has been more aggressive than other Republicans in callin
g for a thorough inquiry.
In my opinion, it would take at least six months for any new investigation to get
to where the Intelligence Committee is today, and the ability to work with the
intelligence community would never equal the daily communications of our biparti
san committee, said Mr. Blunt, who added that he intended to visit C.I.A. headqua
rters in the next week to personally review relevant documents.
Democrats say there is another reason Republicans favor the Intelligence Committ
ee: Its work is conducted mainly behind closed doors, sparing Mr. Trump and his
allies on Capitol Hill from a regular parade of witnesses swearing to tell the t
ruth before sober-faced senators all of it televised live on cable news and C-Sp
From the McCarthy hearings through Watergate, Iran-contra and the Clinton impeac
hment, the American public has become quite familiar with the tableaux of the co
ngressional investigation and the serious business that can be involved.
Republicans would like to avoid such a scene to the extent possible. Pursuing an
investigation through the Intelligence Committee arms them against complaints t
hat they are looking the other way about the allegations, while potentially limi
ting the fallout for them and the new administration.
But rapid-fire developments such as confirmed reports of previously unknown meet
ings between Mr. Sessions and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Serge
y I. Kislyak (meetings he denied at his Senate confirmation hearing), followed b
y his quick recusal may erode Republicans ability to hold off demands for a wider
and more public investigation. Such disclosures have a cumulative effect.
Though most of Mr. Sessionss former colleagues stood solidly behind him before hi
s recusal announcement, there were prominent cracks. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio
, a respected voice among Senate Republicans, issued a statement urging Mr. Sess
ions to step aside from any Russia-related investigation by the Justice Departme
nt. Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, issued his own statement urging t
he intelligence panel to get on with it.
Attorney General Sessionss recusal is the right decision, and the Senate Intellige
nce Committee should accelerate its work, Mr. Sasse said, warning that the Russia
n president, Vladimir V. Putin, was trying to undermine public confidence in Ame
rican institutions. The American people deserve a comprehensive, top-to-bottom in
vestigation of Putins Soviet-style meddling in self-government at home and across
the West.
Their positions, and more private expressions of increasing nervousness by other
lawmakers, show that Republican unity on how to respond to Russias meddling in t
he election is not a given, and that further disclosures could bring about more
defections from the party line that no investigation beyond the intelligence com
munity is warranted.
Most Democrats knew full well that their impassioned demands that Mr. Sessions r
esign would not be met. But they want to keep as much pressure as possible on Re
publicans and chip away at their resistance to a special committee. Any confiden
ce they had in the intelligence committees of the House and Senate was severely
undercut by recent revelations that the Republican chairmen of both panels had,
at the request of the White House, called reporters to try to undermine a story
about contacts between Russians and Trump allies.
Earlier, Mr. Durbin had reluctantly agreed to cede much of the investigative res
ponsibility to the Intelligence Committee, but he has abandoned that stance.
This is a national security crisis, and we cannot afford to allow this process to
be compromised further, he said Thursday. We need an independent commission to in
vestigate now.
That investigation wont happen now, but it could happen later if disclosures cont
inue to pile up.