By Mark Hosenball and Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. House of Representatives panel on Tuesday moved to hold two members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet in contempt of Congress for defying subpoenas in an inquiry into whether the administration's plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census was intended to discriminate against racial minorities.
The Democratic-led House Oversight and Reform Committee's action came with a major Supreme Court decision looming on the legality of adding the citizenship question to the census. The justices could rule as early as Wednesday after lower courts blocked the addition of the question as unlawful.
Also on Tuesday, the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave the green light for a federal judge in Maryland to review recently disclosed evidence concerning the question. It includes documents written by a Republican strategist that administration critics said reveal the political motives for asking census respondents about their citizenship.
The Oversight and Reform Committee called on the full House to take up the contempt issue concerning Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, key members of the Republican president's Cabinet, as the panel presses them to comply with subpoenas for documents.
Opponents have called the citizenship question a Republican scheme to deter immigrants from taking part in the census in an effort to engineer a deliberate population undercount in Democratic-leaning areas to decrease the number of U.S. House seats held by Democrats.
"The Trump Administration claimed that the only reason it wanted to add the citizenship question was to help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act, but that claim has now been exposed as a pretext," Elijah Cummings, the committee chairman, said in a statement.
The committee's move puts the issue before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who can bring it before the chamber for additional enforcement action including seeking legal redress.
The fight over the census is part of an escalating battle as House Democrats seek to hold Trump to account on myriad issues ranging from security clearances to Russian interference in U.S. politics.
'ADVANTAGEOUS TO REPUBLICANS'
Newly submitted evidence in the Maryland court case includes a 2015 study written by Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller in which he concluded that asking census respondents whether they are U.S. citizens "would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats" and "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites" in redrawing electoral districts based on decennial census data. Hofeller has since died and the documents were discovered by his daughter.
The administration has said the citizenship question was needed to better enforce a voting rights law that protects minorities.
In the Maryland case, U.S. District Judge George Hazel has already said the new evidence paints a "disturbing picture." Hazel indicated he is willing to look into whether administration officials were motivated by unlawful discriminatory intent.
The U.S. census count is used to allot seats in the House and distribute federal funding.
Committee Republicans criticized Cummings for releasing the report along with various transcripts from the panel's probe, accusing Democrats of trying to sway the Supreme Court ahead of the expected ruling.
"There's nothing new or controversial revealed in these documents," a spokesperson for panel Republicans said in a statement.
Committee Democrats cited information from James Uthmeier, a former top adviser to Ross. They said Commerce Department officials tried to block Uthmeier from answering committee staffers' questions, including those regarding which White House officials he spoke to and what Ross told him about the secretary's reasons for pushing the citizenship question.
The department also told Uthmeier not to disclose contents of a secret memo about the citizenship issue that he wrote for then-acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore, the panel said. It said Uthmeier did acknowledge that he consulted with a proponent of the citizenship question named James Baker.
A Commerce Department spokesman said, "The Committee's summary is not a transcript of Mr. Uthmeier's interview and mischaracterizes what he said on multiple topics." The spokesman said Uthmeier answered more than 400 questions, but declined "to discuss privileged communications. That was entirely appropriate."
(Writing by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)