Democrats ground the Senate to a halt on Wednesday, forcing Republicans to abruptly end or postpone committee hearings in protest of President Donald Trump's controversial decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.
On Wednesday morning, Minority Whip Dick Durbin — the number-two Senate Democrat — said that the Senate is currently facing an important "constitutional question" and made the unusual move of preventing the Senate from holding committee hearings, where senators research and debate bills, and conduct oversight of federal agencies.
Durbin cited Comey's firing when he objected to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's request to allow 13 committees to meet Wednesday.
Ben Marter, a spokesperson for Durbin, said the senator employed what's called the two-hour rule, a delay tactic used infrequently by both parties to prevent committees from meeting two hours after the Senate convenes for the day. On Wednesday, the Senate convened at 9:30 a.m., meaning committee meetings after 11:30 a.m. were postponed and those that had already started were forced to adjourn.
That included hearings on law enforcement's difficulties obtaining data stored overseas, the Endangered Species Act, judicial nominations, veteran health care, and seniors.
"This is not a business as usual day with a constitutional crisis on our hands," Marter said, adding that halting committee hearings would focus the Senate's attention on the Comey issue.
Republicans were furious. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, whose Aging committee was supposed to meet Wednesday for a hearing on the "impact of isolation and loneliness on the health and well-being" of seniors, said the Democratic tactic "makes no sense whatsoever."
"This is an example of the dysfunction of the Senate," Collins said on the Senate floor. "How does it make sense that the Aging committee, which operates in a completely bipartisan manner, is being prohibited from holding a hearing that is important to our seniors and that has nothing to do with the issues that are in the news today?"
Montana Sen. Steve Daines said on the Senate floor that Democrats weren’t thinking about the witnesses that had flown to Washington on their own dime to testify before the committees on Wednesday. One witness from Montana “spent over $1,000 on a flight. He spent almost $600 on hotel accommodations, not to mention the cost of other incidentals,” Daines said, to tell senators about the “unacceptably unclean tap water” in his home state.
Democrats are requesting the Justice Department appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the Russia investigation, as well as a briefing from Comey and a briefing from top Justice Department officials about his firing.
Democrats — and some Republicans — have criticized the timing of Trump's decision to fire Comey, who has previously confirmed the FBI is investigating potential links between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
"The dismissal of Director Comey establishes a very troubling pattern," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday morning. "This administration has now removed several law enforcement officials in a position to conduct independent investigations of the president and his administration."
Schumer, who was surrounded — at his request — in the chamber by all Democratic senators on Wednesday morning, asked McConnell to "call a closed, and if necessary, classified, all-senators briefing with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general separately" so senators can find out more about why the administration fired Comey.
Before Schumer spoke, McConnell dismissed criticisms of Trump's decision to fire Comey, saying Democrats were "complaining about the removal of an FBI Director whom they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticized" for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But Schumer said that if Trump was truly concerned about Comey's handling of the Clinton investigation, he would have fired the FBI director upon taking office.
McConnell also said that he opposed an independent investigation, arguing that it would delay and impair the Senate Intelligence committee's own ongoing Russia investigation.