Senate Democrats prepare to flex new subpoena power

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign event at the SEA/ SEIU Union Hall, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Concord, N.H. Elise Amendola/AP

Senate Democrats prepare to flex new subpoena power

Sarah Westwood

December 09, 04:00 AM December 09, 04:00 AM

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For all the focus on House Republicans’ plans to flex their investigative muscles next year in the majority, Senate Democrats unlocked their ability to do the same this week with Sen. Raphael Warnock’s reelection victory in Georgia.

That’s because the outright majority Warnock clinched for Senate Democrats will allow them to use subpoena power they couldn’t exercise when the upper chamber was evenly split.


And while Senate Democrats aren’t likely to use their new investigative tools to probe the Biden administration, they could go after targets their base would like to see in the hot seat: Big Pharma, Big Tech, and more.

“On our committee, it means we will be in a better position to take a look at some of the abuses that take place within healthcare, within the pharmaceutical industry, within labor,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told the Washington Examiner on Thursday.

Sanders, who chairs the Budget Committee as well as a subcommittee for the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, also said Senate Democrats would likely scrutinize “the illegal activity of corporations” that negatively affects workers.

Under the power-sharing agreement in place during Democrats’ two years presiding over a 50-50 Senate split, the party had to secure Republican permission to issue the subpoenas that would give their investigations teeth.

Starting in January, Democratic senators can unilaterally compel testimony and documents in a manner that “greatly emboldens and enables our investigative power,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

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The exact targets of investigative subpoenas remain unclear as Democrats scramble to wrap up legislative business for the year and return in January with a stronger hold on the Senate.

“We’re talking amongst ourselves about that,” Blumenthal told the Washington Examiner of the party’s oversight priorities for next year.

House Democrats, who have wielded investigative power for the past two years, may have already provided a road map for what their Senate colleagues could pursue.

Donald Trump and his associates provided seemingly endless fodder for House Democratic investigators. The party fought successfully in court to gain access to the former president’s tax returns, although they may not have adequate time to review them before they recede into the minority; the select committee probing circumstances surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol riot interviewed hundreds of witnesses and procured thousands of documents.

House Republicans are poised to shut down both investigations, leaving ample room for Senate Democrats to take up the mantle of Trump inquiries.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), chairman of the Finance Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he considers congressional oversight a “special priority” for lawmakers, in addition to passing legislation.

“Investigations are hugely important,” he said.

For their part, House Republicans have pledged to use their narrow majority to focus heavily on investigations of the Biden administration.

Their target list includes Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as he presides over a border crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s handling of the pandemic, and the disastrous troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, among many other matters.

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But in one area, House Republicans and Senate Democrats could overlap: taking on Big Tech.

GOP lawmakers have said they want to use their investigative power to probe content suppression practices at companies such as Twitter and Facebook, which they accuse of censoring conservative voices.

Democrats have long complained that those companies don’t do enough to shield users from what they describe as harmful or misleading information, and they have vowed to keep a particularly close eye on Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of Twitter whose commitment to free speech has rankled them.

David Sivak contributed to this report.

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