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Legislators hope House Intelligence Committee can be less polarized

Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat and Republican, respectively, oversee witness testimony during an impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 21, 2019.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

By KAROUN DEMIRJIAN | The Washington Post | Published: November 22, 2020

After four years of bitter partisan feuding over its investigations into President Donald Trump, the House Intelligence Committee is facing perhaps its steepest challenge yet: restoring bipartisan functionality to the panel that is supposed to be Congress's first line of defense against the nation's most existential threats.

Back-to-back Russia probes and an impeachment investigation soured the committee's traditionally apolitical culture and catapulted its leaders into the sharply partisan limelight as they defended or excoriated Trump.

As Democrats accused top Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California of conspiring to protect the president, and Republicans accused top Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California of making up lies to smear him, each assumed the joint role of hero to his party and boogeyman to the other side — and the panel became the scorched earth in between.

Even after investigations cadenced, scars remain. For months, Republican members have boycotted all but one of the committee's public events, as well as unclassified private briefings. The panel also has yet to produce a single piece of legislation or statement of policy that has not split along party lines.

"There's a part of me that thinks it's almost biblical, like Moses, and that generations are going to have to come and die out before everything is cleansed," Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the panel, said in an interview. "But there are still things that are bipartisan: threats to national security, homeland security. ... Heaven forbid something dramatic happens, which tends to be a unifier. And then it's really up to people to decide to move on or not."

In a series of interviews, Democratic and Republicans panel members expressed a common hope that, in a post-Trump Washington, the committee could restore a less-divisive work ethic. But more often than not, that hope was coupled with feelings of futility and finger-pointing across the aisle.

"Not with Adam Schiff as chair," Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., answered when asked if the panel could set aside past differences. "He has politicized and broken that committee, he has overseen a committee that has leaked like a sieve, and it's a toxic, toxic environment because of Adam Schiff's failure of leadership."

Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., who is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, offered a similar assessment of Nunes.

"There's a rumor that Mr. Nunes is trying to become the ranking member of Ways and Means. ... If he is successful, we'll have a chance to hit the reset button, and I think that would be healthy for everybody," Heck said. "I don't think there's any constructive purpose in this point about pointing the finger. ... I just have my fingers crossed that there will be a change so we can return to some state of bipartisanship."

Schiff is expected to remain the chairman next year, and nearly all of the Democrats on the committee now are expected to return in the new Congress. Republicans already have at least three slots to fill due to members who have or will be retiring, regardless of whether Nunes inherits the top GOP slot on another panel, and they could add a seat to their roster to reflect the party's gains in the election.

A spokesman for Nunes did not respond to a request for an interview. But Schiff said in an interview that he would be a "willing partner" in moving the committee beyond its discordant past, provided Republicans were willing to meet him halfway.

"The minority over the last few years viewed themselves not as an oversight body, but essentially defense counsel for the president ... so I think the minority only has itself to blame for the poisoning of the relationship," Schiff said of the panel's GOP members. "We are extending a hand, notwithstanding that history."

Schiff acknowledged that "it'll take time to restore trust," both between the two parties and between the panel and the intelligence agencies, but expressed confidence that "it can be done."

"A lot of the areas of friction will have departed along with the Trump administration," Schiff added.

Trump's combative approach to the U.S. intelligence community, and his quest to replace or retaliate against those who have contradicted his worldview, has complicated the business of intelligence gathering and fueled the partisan warring in Congress. But while the Trump factor has made the current intelligence panel's challenges unique, it has not rendered them entirely unprecedented.

It's been about a decade since the last time the panel has had to right itself following a period of discord and breakdowns with the intelligence community, after a highly charged investigation into whether the CIA misled Congress about its use of interrogation techniques during the war on terrorism.

"When Dutch Ruppersberger (Democrat from Maryland) and Mike Rogers (Republican from Michigan) took the reins, we were in a wreck as well," recalled Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, who will retire at the end of this year. "They made a conscious effort to reset, not only on the committee, but with the agencies themselves - so it's possible to make it happen."

A new agenda could help, even absent new leadership.

Members on both sides have expressed interest in focusing attention on cybersecurity and the rise of China. Schiff also has promised to pair a focus on traditional "hard targets" with attention to "softer" emerging threats, such as climate change, technological development and pandemics.

"The priorities should be the original intent of the committee: provide oversight over intelligence, to go travel the world and find out what's happening with our agencies in the Middle East, in China, in places in the world that we're concerned about," said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who would be likely to ascend to the panel's top GOP spot if Nunes departed.

Democrats also surmise that a change in occupancy at the White House could itself provide new opportunities for cooperation.

"Structurally I expect my Republican friends to rediscover their interest in oversight with a President Biden," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., currently the panel's second-highest ranking Democrat. "So I think there's reasons to be optimistic, but it's going to require people letting bygones be bygones."