WASHINGTON — The partisan rancor on the U.S. House floor earlier this month had never been higher.
Packed with members, Republican leaders were in their final scramble to secure votes for a landmark piece of legislation that could dismantle former President Obama’s 2010 landmark health care law, and they weren't bothering to secure Democratic support.
A few hours later, Democrats would respond in kind. From the minority side, they sang lyrics from “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” indicating they believed the vote would cost the GOP control of the House.
But in a quiet calm amid the chaos, a Democrat who literally represents Hollywood and a Republican from the oil fields of West Texas chatted together alone, pleasantly smiling and laughing.
That U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, and Adam Schiff, D-California, can tolerate one another — let alone collaborate in their highly-charged capacities as lead House investigators of Russian interference of the 2016 election — is nothing short of a miracle in Washington these days.
And yet, they are — so far.
“We are both committed to doing this inquiry the right way and following the facts wherever they may lead, and I appreciate his devotion to the task and the constructive way he is helping to lead the investigation," Schiff wrote to the Tribune in an email, adding that it was "a pleasure" to work with Conaway.
And Schiff isn't alone in his party in this regard. Six weeks ago, the House Intelligence Committee investigation was a partisan mess. But then House leaders brought on Conaway to lead the probe, and Democratic concerns and complaints mostly faded, though a high-profile hearing Tuesday could prove pivotal in whether that sentiment continues.
Conaway, 68, is a party man and solid ideological conservative. It is unlikely he will ever cross the aisle and back a bill to combat global warming or co-sponsor tax hike legislation. But what makes him rare in this charged moment is that Democrat after Democrat interviewed for this story used the same word to describe him: fair.
“He has always shown himself to be fair-minded,” said U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, a senior Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee from Alabama.
Conaway declined to comment for this story.
To be sure, a major reason Conaway has credibility is that his name is not Devin Nunes — his predecessor on the chamber's Russian investigation.
Nunes, a California Republican, is the House Intelligence Committee chairman and stepped down from the lead investigator role in early April after a series of bizarre interactions with the Trump White House.
For every kind word Democrats offer up now about Conaway, they could not find television cameras fast enough two months ago to trash Nunes' leadership.
Nunes eventually recused himself from leading the investigation in April, and House leaders turned to Conaway.
That first day brought to the fore some unpleasant headlines from the last year. Back in January, Conaway compared the Russian interference in the election to mariachi singers from Mexico campaigning for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Nevada in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. And another flippant comment in a March hearing in which he compared Russian game theory to Big 12 rivalries did not help.
More recently, he came under a microscope for his stock trading, which drew allegations of conflicts of interest.
But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of calling witnesses and subpoenaing documents, Democrats are relieved to have him in charge.
“I’m very grateful that he’s taken the helm after the recusal because I think we have to get back on track,” said Sewell, the Alabama Democrat who serves on the committee.
Another committee Democratic source who declined to speak on the record concurred. This member of Congress said that while Conaway does not always say yes to Democratic requests, he willingly hears them out.
There was evidence of this as recently as last week, when Conaway and Schiff jointly requested that former FBI Director James Comey turn over to the committee memorandums he wrote about his interactions with President Trump, one of which had been the center of one of the series of scandals to hit the White House last week.
Besides the united front with Schiff, Conaway is taking another differing tack from Nunes. Camera friendly, Nunes appeared on television several times a day – at times enraging Democrats over his attempts to focus the investigation on Trump's claim that former President Obama wiretapped him.
In contrast, Conaway found himself on Tuesday trailed by a half-dozen reporters after a briefing with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. His frequent refrain was “No comment…no comment," but before he escaped into a nearby elevator he promised a "bipartisan ... thorough, meticulous" investigation.
Having reporters on his tail is something new for Conaway.
Until he took this post, he was one of the more obscure members of the Texas delegation, despite being chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
But the 38-member Texas delegation includes some of the most flamboyant members of Congress, including a former presidential candidate who once read “Green Eggs and Ham” on the Senate floor, a pair of House members that livestreamed a two-day road trip on Facebook, a former judge who once hounded a convicted rapist on Twitter and a South Texas Democrat who encouraged a future president to shove a border wall “up his ass."
Conaway, in contrast, is hardly noticed.
Behind the scenes, though, it is a different story on Capitol Hill.
Not long after winning his sprawling West Texas seat in 2004, Conaway soon earned respect among Republicans when, as a certified public accountant, he uncovered a fraud scandal at the National Republican Congressional Committee House campaign arm.
In 2015, he was a serious contender to succeed U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, until U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin emerged as the consensus favorite. Conaway’s name still surfaces on lists of future speakers.
Prior to earning the gavel at agriculture, Conaway had a dicier leadership position: chairman of the House Ethics Committee, the in-house enforcer of rules within the chamber. It is considered among House members as one of the least-sought-after jobs in politics.
U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-California, worked closely with him as the ranking member of the committee. She told the Tribune she harbored initial concerns that their ideological differences might pose problems.
Instead, she discovered a partner in running one of the most thankless committees in the chamber.
“He approached everything with the sense of ‘Let’s get through the work and let the facts lead us where they lead us,’” she said. “I hope he takes that same kind of work ethic to the Intel Committee and looks at things objectively and judge them based on where the facts lead.”
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took some pressure off of Conaway and the committee when he announced the widely respected Robert Mueller as a special counsel into the Russian matter.
But Mueller will lead a criminal investigation – which was never the intent of the Congressional committee. Conaway's charge going forward is likely to learn how the cyberattacks happened, and what the policy prescriptions are for Congress to prevent it from happening again. That could mean revealing damaging information about President Trump, his allies and how his campaign won a presidential election.
The goodwill toward Conaway could evaporate as soon as Tuesday, when the House Intelligence Committee will host an open hearing with former CIA Director John Brennan. It will be Conaway's first public hearing since taking over the lead role in the Russia investigation.
At a base level, the two parties struggle to see the investigation in the same light.
House Democratic members feel personally victimized by the Russian hack – many of their personal emails, cell phone numbers and home addresses were dumped onto the internet in the months before Election Day. They say they feel as if the Republicans simply do not care that their fellow Americans were attacked by a hostile foreign power.
Republicans, on the other hand, suspect the whole investigation into collusion is much ado about nothing, a witch hunt intended to undermine the president and the conservative agenda. Their focus at a previous public hearing was mostly on leaks to the news media.
It is a fine line for Conaway to walk.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier is a California Democrat who serves on the intelligence committee. She had little patience for Nunes or any whiff of perceived GOP partisanship over the investigations.
But her tone, too, changed with Conaway. She called him prepared, agreeable and “respected by both sides of the aisle.”
Still, skepticism remains.
“It’s the beginning of a long process, but if this turns into a committee report about leaks, we have basically slapped the American people in the face,” she said. “All signs are good, but the rubber hasn’t met the road yet.”
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