(CNN) The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to allow staff to question Attorney General William Barr during his hearing on the special counsel's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, raising the possibility that he won't show up.
Barr warned Democrats days ago that he won't appear before the committee, scheduled for Thursday morning, if they stick to the format.
"I don't know what he's afraid of," said House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat.
The vote was 21 to 14.
Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the panel, called the move unprecedented, saying Democrats wanted the appearance of impeachment without formally starting the process. He also said if staff wants to ask questions, he or she should run for Congress. And Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican of Wisconsin, said such a motion had not happened in his 40 years in Congress.
Nadler argued that staff asked witnesses questions during impeachment inquiries of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, as well as Cabinet officials in previous decades.
Nadler said that Barr's hearing Thursday was especially important due to the recent revelation that special counsel Robert Mueller sent the attorney general a letter in March expressing his concerns with Barr's decision to release a memo summarizing the report. In that memo, Barr unveiled the overall points of the nearly two-year investigation and found that President Donald Trump did not obstruct justice, even though Mueller did not conclude whether Trump committed that offense. The Department of Justice then released a redacted Mueller report to the public.
Before the hearing, Nadler also said the committee would "take steps to enforce" a subpoena to the Justice Department for the unredacted Mueller report and its underlying evidence should Barr not comply.
When asked if he thought Barr should step down, as other Democrats have called for, Nadler said that "there are great difficulties for the attorney general at this point."
"Besides the fact that he clearly misled the American people, he seems to have testified non-truthfully to the Senate and the House, which raises major questions," Nadler said.