Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker announces an indictment on violations including bank and wire fraud at the Justice Department in Washington, Jan. 28, 2019. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin | AP

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Thursday morning to give its chairman the authority to subpoena acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker’s testimony, should he fail to show for or answer questions during a planned Friday hearing.

That the vote divided Democrats and Republicans is a sign that partisan differences will continue to cast a shadow over the panel as it probes matters related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, including possible ties to the Trump campaign. But Democrats, newly in control of the House, are determined not to give Trump administration officials the leeway they accuse the GOP of affording them during the first two years of the Trump presidency — and believe that preparing pre-emptive subpoenas to ensure that potentially difficult witnesses don’t evade testimony is an important part of that.

“I hope not to have to use the subpoena,” panel chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, said, introducing the resolution. “Unfortunately a series of troubling events over the last few months suggest that we should be prepared.”

Democrats are worried that Whitaker, whose public comments before taking over the Justice Department suggested he was sympathetic to Trump and critical of the Mueller probe, may seek to evade questions he is asked during the proceedings.

They pointed to a pattern of administration witnesses, such as former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who refused to answer certain queries by suggesting the president “might” want to invoke executive privilege over certain parts of their testimony, to justify the concern.

“The committee can and should expect a direct answer to any question,” said Nadler, who opted to send Whitaker his questions in advance and require that he tell the panel of any plans to invoke executive privilege at least 48 hours before the hearing. “That deadline has come and gone … therefore I expect the acting attorney general to answer all of these questions without equivocation.”

But Republicans objected to the move, arguing that Whitaker had not yet personally given the panel a legitimate reason to be concerned — and that approving a pre-emptive subpoena would set a bad precedent for the panel.

“This subpoena is nothing short of political theater,” said the ranking Republican, Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia. “I’m concerned about the chilling effect on other witnesses who would be willing to testify voluntarily, and when they see this happen, they’ll just hold out.”

Republicans attempted to get the committee to expand the subpoena-in-reserve to also give Nadler the authority to subpoena Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whom GOP members of the panel have long wanted to question about reports that he suggested taping the president and invoking constitutional procedures to remove him from office.

If the panel had questions about oversight of Mueller’s probe, Republicans also argued, better to question Rosenstein, who had been monitoring it for far longer than Whitaker.

“We want to add Mr. Rosenstein to get at the heart of the matter of the questions,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, who presented the amendment to add Rosenstein’s name to the subpoena authorization. “He could probably answer those questions more thoroughly than anybody else.”

The panel voted against the proposal, also along party lines.

Whitaker’s hearing, should it proceed according to schedule, will likely be one of his final appearances as acting attorney general. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote Thursday to advance the nomination of William Barr to serve as attorney general, and the full Senate is expected to vote on confirmation next week.

Though several Democrats have opposed Barr’s nomination out of concerned that he might limit Mueller’s probe or keep the final report out of the hands of the public, he is expected to be confirmed, as he only need secure a simple majority of the GOP-led Senate for his nomination to be approved.