The House on Tuesday approved a measure authorizing the Judiciary Committee to take Attorney General William Barr to federal court to gain access to former special counsel Robert Mueller's unredacted report and underlying evidence.
The legislation also empowers Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) to begin legal proceedings to force former White House counsel Don McGahn to cooperate with the panel's probe into whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice.
It's Democrats' most aggressive step yet in their ongoing oversight battle with the Trump administration over withheld documents and witnesses - granting sweeping authority to committee chairs to sue the administration in federal court to enforce their subpoenas, including efforts to obtain Trump's tax returns and haul Mueller's witnesses to Capitol Hill.
"The Trump administration is engaged in one of the most unprecedented cover-ups since Watergate," House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said. "The administration officials now question the fundamental basis of Congress to conduct oversight."
The resolution was approved on party lines, with 229 votes in favor and 191 opposed.
Tuesday's vote came as Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that House Democrats were "not even close" to backing an impeachment inquiry into Trump.
In remarks at a policy conference on Tuesday, Pelosi offered her most detailed rebuttal to pro-impeachment lawmakers, questioning whether opening such an inquiry would strengthen the House's hand in the looming legal battles against the Trump administration to produce Mueller's witnesses and documents to Congress.
Nadler said on Tuesday he intends to go to court as soon as possible to enforce his panel's subpoenas for Mueller's evidence and access to central witnesses. He acknowledged, though, the timing of any court action will be determined by House leaders and the House general counsel.
Nadler, who remains at odds with Pelosi over whether to open an impeachment inquiry, indicated on Monday he is willing to delay legal action against Barr over his refusal to turn over Mueller's unredacted report and underlying evidence, citing a deal with the Justice Department to begin giving lawmakers access to Mueller's files, including FBI reports and contemporaneous notes.
"If they continue to cooperate with us, I expect we will not race to the courthouse," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a Judiciary Committee member, said.
But Nadler is likely to move more quickly to enforce the committee's subpoena to McGahn, who acquiesced to a White House directive to defy that subpoena, which seeks documents and public testimony.
Nadler also has indicated he intends to go to court to seek a judge's permission to access Mueller's grand jury evidence, which is legally prohibited from being shared with Congress without a waiver from a judge. Barr has rebuffed Nadler's request that the Justice Department join the committee in that effort.
Republicans questioned the Democratic decision to empower committees to take legal action, noting that the measure gives veto power on any such decision to an obscure committee of senior lawmakers that includes Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) are also on the Democratic-controlled panel.
"What they are doing now is taking power away from Congress and putting it into a group of five people, with three Democrats and two Republicans," McCarthy said. "Does the power of Congress really lie in just three people? … Because that's in essence what happens today."
The resolution will also empower Nadler to ask a federal court to enforce his subpoenas to two former top White House aides, Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson, who defied the panel's subpoena seeking documents as part of its obstruction probe. Both Hicks and Donaldson are referenced several times in the Mueller report, and the White House is expected to block them from testifying later this month.
Other committees that could soon take the Trump administration to court include the House Ways and Means Committee, which has issued a subpoena for six years' worth of Trump's personal and business tax returns. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said Chairman Richard Neal's request is a misuse of congressional authority and serves no legislative purpose.
Democrats have already won key court battles regarding their subpoenas for Trump's financial records. Last month, a federal judge in New York upheld the House Financial Services Committee's subpoenas to Deutsche Bank and Capital One and a federal judge in Washington said the Oversight Committee's subpoena to accounting firm Mazars USA was lawful. Trump has appealed both of those rulings.