April 6, 2017 / 9:03 PM / 4 months ago

U.S. House Russia probe puts spotlight on low-profile lawmaker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Representative Mike Conaway's new role leading the House Intelligence Committee investigation into the Trump team's ties to Russia has plunged the low-profile legislator into one of the most contentious issues in Congress and the country.

Republicans and Democrats both praised his selection. He has administrative experience as a committee chairman, and familiarity with delicate subjects after leading the House Ethics Committee from 2013 to 2015.

"I like him. I hope he can get us back on track," Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democratic committee member, said in a brief interview outside the U.S. House of Representatives.

While Conaway, 68, has ties to mainstream Republicans and a long association with the Bush political family, the former accountant from Texas was a strong Trump supporter during the 2016 campaign.

In 2016, Conaway backed Trump, citing the candidate's choice of Mike Pence as his vice president, his promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices and the congressman's own vehement opposition to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

But unlike Devin Nunes - who on Thursday stepped down as leader of the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, including possible collusion with Trump associates - Conaway was not a member of the incoming president's transition team. Russia denies the allegations.

Conaway is considered less partisan than some other Republican committee members such as Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Select Committee that investigated the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Democrats accused Gowdy of running a partisan inquiry that focussed on former Secretary of State Clinton in an effort to damage her 2016 presidential campaign.

In his statement announcing he would step aside, Nunes said Gowdy and another Republican committee member, Tom Rooney, would also be leaders of the Russia investigation.

Fox News reported that Nunes called Conaway on Wednesday night.

Nevertheless, some Conaway comments about the Russia investigation have raised eyebrows.

During a March 20 committee hearing, he asked FBI Director James Comey whether Washington Post reporters had helped intelligence agencies write their assessment that Moscow was seeking to help Trump win the election.

And in a January interview with the Dallas Morning News, he seemed to make light of the alleged Russian meddling in the election, saying it and the Democrats' use of Mexican singers to entertain their voters were both "foreign interference."

Although he also serves as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Conaway has kept a low profile, and is better known for his close ties to the Bush family than the media spotlight.

First elected to the House in 2004, and easily re-elected six times, Conaway is the second-ranking Republican on the intelligence panel.

House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Thursday that he had faith in Conaway. "I am confident that he will oversee a professional investigation into Russia's actions and follow the facts wherever they may lead," Ryan said.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by John Walcott and Jonathan Oatis

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