Senate Judiciary chair Grassley's move leaves key opening

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Chuck Grassley said on Friday he will relinquish his job as U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman next year, creating a coveted vacancy atop a panel that reviews judicial nominations and was among those examining Russia’s role in U.S. elections.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) speaks during a news conference to discuss the FBI background investigation into the assault allegations against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a former skeptic toward President Donald Trump who in recent months has become one of his fiercest supporters, has publicly stated his interest in becoming Judiciary Committee chairman in the event of a vacancy.

Grassley, an Iowa Republican who turned 85 in September, said in a statement that in giving up the Judiciary Committee post he would instead seek to replace retiring Senator Orrin Hatch as chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, a position Grassley held twice previously.

The Judiciary Committee’s role in reviewing judicial nominations has been in the spotlight at a time when Trump has nominated a succession of conservative judges in a bid to move the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, to the right. The Senate must confirm appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal judgeships.

The committee was the focus of attention this fall in contentious public hearings over Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who denied an allegation that he sexually assaulted a university professor in the 1980s when both were teenagers. The Republican-led panel backed Kavanaugh despite fierce Democratic opposition, and the Senate voted to confirm the conservative federal appeals court judge to a lifetime position on the high court on Oct. 6.

Graham lashed out at Kavanaugh’s Democratic opponents during the tense hearings, accusing them of pursuing “the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.”

As head of the Finance Committee, Grassley said he would focus on additional tax cuts and tax fairness, U.S. exports and improving U.S. healthcare.

While the Senate Intelligence Committee has taken the lead in the chamber in looking into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Judiciary Committee has played a smaller role. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation has led to criminal charges against former Trump aides and a variety of Russian individuals and entities.

Graham on Thursday met with Matthew Whitaker, who Trump named as acting attorney general after ousting Jeff Sessions last week. Whitaker, who has assumed authority over the Mueller probe, told Graham he was comfortable with the ongoing investigation, the senator said.

Senate Republicans, who maintained control of the chamber in midterm congressional elections this month, will finalize the committee leadership posts when the next Congress convenes in January. Democrats won control of the House.

Reporting by Susan Heavey and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Will Dunham