Their Investigations Barely Begun, Democrats Are Already at a Crossroads

Democrats were not eager to back down and pledged to hold their hearing anyway.

“Compliance with congressional subpoenas is not optional, and if good-faith negotiations don’t result in a pledge of compliance in the next day or two, the next step is seeking a contempt citation against the attorney general,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the committee’s chairman, told reporters.

The challenge for Mr. Nadler and other House committee leaders is now figuring out how to navigate to secure the material they need for their work. The Judiciary Committee could authorize another subpoena for Mr. Barr’s testimony.

But it then has different paths to escalating its case. Some lawmakers are arguing for opening an impeachment inquiry, which grants the House clearer powers to command information from the executive branch. Others want to hold Mr. Barr in contempt of Congress, a threat that could cajole him into voluntarily giving up more. They could also go to court to try to enforce their subpoenas. Each option has limitations and could slow Congress’s work substantially.

Democrats have still been unable to secure testimony from Mr. Mueller himself. Mr. Nadler said on Wednesday that they were hoping to hold a hearing on May 15, but were still “seeking to firm up the date” with the Justice Department. It is also unclear if Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel whom the committee subpoenaed to testify this month, will show up.

Mr. Trump may be the ultimate target for Democrats, but Mr. Barr is now officially in their sights.

Dozens of Democrats in Congress, including some running for president, seized on Mr. Mueller’s letter on Wednesday and called for Mr. Barr to resign. “After today’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it is clear that Attorney General Barr lacks all credibility,” said Senator Kamala Harris of California, one of the presidential candidates. “The American public deserves an attorney general that will fairly and impartially enforce the law. Barr must resign.”

Those calls are almost certain not to move Mr. Barr, and will most likely please only the president. But the attorney general may soon find himself with another form of threat from Democrats in the House: a contempt of Congress citation. Though not necessarily punitive, a vote to hold Mr. Barr in contempt would put a mark on his record and further inflame tensions between the Justice Department and Congress. While Mr. Nadler signaled that he was not ready to support such a measure, other Democrats on his committee were already there.

“It’s time to hold Mr. Barr in contempt for his failure to comply with the subpoena requiring him to produce the unredacted Mueller report to Congress,” Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island said on Wednesday.