The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved legislation to protect the special counsel from being fired, a rare bipartisan step that sends a warning signal to President Donald Trump not to remove Robert Mueller.
The legislation, which would give Mueller and other special counsels the ability to challenge their firings in court, still has little chance of becoming law — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed not to put it on the floor, House Republicans have shown no interest in the measure and Trump would be unlikely to sign it.
But the committee’s 14-7 vote to approve the measure still provides a symbolic message that the Senate would not tolerate Mueller’s firing. Four Republicans voted yes: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
The special counsel bill was authored by four senators — Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republicans Tillis and Graham — and was finalized earlier this month amid rising concerns from Democrats that Trump might try to fire Mueller.
Thursday’s vote occurred following lengthy negotiations between senior members of the committee over an amendment to the bill from Grassley, which added congressional reporting requirements to the bill.
Democrats said they were alarmed at an initial draft of Grassley’s amendment — which would have required the attorney general to report to Congress about changes to the special counsel’s scope — would open up the investigation to potential political interference.
The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, on Tuesday threatened to oppose the bill if the amendment was not changed. But the two Judiciary Committee leaders came together with the bill’s co-sponsors and struck a compromise ahead of Thursday’s markup.
“You were willing to make the necessary compromises,” Feinstein told Grassley. “Everybody went to work and worked it out.”
Grassley said he still harbors some concerns that the underlying legislation is unconstitutional, because the President controls the Executive Branch, but that he felt his amendment made the bill better.
“I believe this bill should be considered by the full Senate, and I think my amendment improves it,” Grassley said.
While Republicans have said the legislation is not about Mueller’s investigation, Trump’s flirtation with firing the special counsel or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who supervises Mueller, loomed over the hearing.
Trump once again railed on the Justice Department and the FBI in a “Fox and Friends” interview on Thursday morning, and hinted he might get involved in the Justice Department and the special counsel investigation down the road.
“And our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won’t,” Trump said.
The final version of Grassley’s amendment, which was adopted by the committee on Thursday, requires the Justice Department to report to Congress when the special counsel investigation ends to detail the findings of the investigation, any changes to the special counsel’s jurisdiction during the probe and an explanation of the decisions to prosecute or not prosecute.
Grassley’s amendment also requires notification to Congress when the attorney general seeks to remove a special counsel.
Despite the bipartisan vote, there’s still no clear passage for the legislation to move forward beyond the Judiciary Committee.
While Grassley said he hoped McConnell would take it up, the majority leader has made clear he does not think the legislation is necessary because he doesn’t believe Trump will fire Mueller.
Republicans who opposed the bill made clear they did not believe Trump should fire Mueller, but said that the legislation was not the proper vehicle to stop him. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said that firing Mueller would “cause a firestorm and bring the administration’s agenda to a halt, and could even result in impeachment.”
Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, co-sponsored an amendment with GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Hatch as an alternative to replace the text of the special counsel bill with a “sense of the Senate resolution.”
The resolution stated the feeling among several Republicans on the panel that the bill was unconstitutional — stating that it would “weaken the separation of powers in the name of political expediency” — while stating that Mueller “should be permitted to finish his work in a timely fashion.”
The amendment failed on a 5-16 vote.