In major shift, GOP-controlled panel moves to protect Mueller

The Senate Judiciary Committee is poised to move forward with legislation to protect special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, a significant shift that comes amid growing pressure from Democrats.

Some Republicans sought to hit the brakes on the bill, but the decision from committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits Controversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting MORE (R-Iowa) shows there is a growing appetite among some in the GOP for a legislative response to President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE’s apparent willingness to fire the man leading the Justice Department’s investigation into Russia's election meddling.

Just a day earlier, Senate Republicans warned Trump not to take any action against Mueller, saying it would be disastrous. Grassley, in some of the strongest comments from the caucus, said it would be “suicide.”

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But on Wednesday, Trump renewed his attacks on the special counsel, complaining of the “never ending and corrupt Russia investigation.”

Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Polling analyst: Changes to legal immigration ‘the real sticking point among Democrats’ Graham would consider US-Russia military coordination in Syria MORE (R-S.C.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisKey GOP senator says ‘no question’ Russia is meddling in U.S. affairs GOP Senator: 'Very inappropriate' for Trump to discuss allowing Russia to question US citizens Anti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House MORE (R-N.C.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerAnti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House House backs resolution expressing support for ICE Dems to propose legislation to prevent ICE from shackling pregnant women MORE (D-N.J.) and Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsAnti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House Hillicon Valley: EU hits Google with record B fine | Trump tries to clarify Russia remarks | Sinclair changing deal to win over FCC | Election security bill gets traction | Robocall firm exposed voter data Overnight Defense: More Trump drama over Russia | Appeals court rules against Trump on transgender ban | Boeing wins Air Force One contract | Military parade to reportedly cost M MORE (D-Del.) announced later Wednesday morning that they would merge their competing bills on the special counsel, creating a bipartisan vehicle for action.

In a surprise move, Grassley quickly sought to place the bill on his committee’s agenda, potentially as early as Thursday.

The Iowa Republican had previously voiced concerns that legislation hindering Trump’s ability to fire Mueller might be unconstitutional.

As recently as Tuesday, Grassley sidestepped questions about whether he would allow similar legislation to come up, telling a flock of reporters that he hasn’t “missed a vote since 1993.”

Grassley’s decision appeared to catch even members of Republican leadership off guard.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (S.D.), the No. 3 GOP senator, told reporters, “I’m anxious to hear from Chuck about what his thoughts are on the process.”

Members of the Judiciary Committee acknowledged they learned about Grassley’s thinking from reporters.

“I haven’t [been notified],” said Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials MORE (R-Texas). “Maybe my staff has; I have to rely on the press.”

“I have not. I just work here. Nobody tells me anything,” quipped Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.).

Asked why he thought Grassley agreed to bring up the controversial bill, he added, “I bet you if you ask Chuck he’ll tell you, because I don’t know.”

To place the legislation on the agenda on Thursday, spokesman George Hartmann noted that Grassley needs Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel, to sign off on the move because “committee rules require such assent within 72 hours of a markup.”

Instead, it appears the committee will delay the bill until next week. Feinstein said in a statement early Wednesday evening that she and Grassley have agreed “not to take action this week but instead place the bill on the committee’s markup calendar next week.” 

Feinstein noted she is “worried about an amendment ... that could undermine the investigation” and hadn’t yet been able to review it. 

Any member, under committee rules, can also delay a vote on the bill for a week once it has been placed on the agenda. 

But the decision to give the legislation a vote marks one of the largest fractures to date between Trump and congressional Republicans, who have been wary of bucking the president heading into the midterm elections.

Under the Senate legislation, Mueller or any other special counsel would receive an “expedited judicial review” within 10 days of being fired to determine if it was for a “good cause.” If it were found not to be, the special counsel would be reinstated. The measure also codifies into law that only a senior Justice Department official can fire a special counsel.

Republicans are redoubling their efforts to urge Trump not to fire Mueller following the FBI’s raid on the office, home and hotel room of the president’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. That action enraged the president, who called it an “attack on our country.”

In the aftermath of the raid, the White House’s message on the Mueller investigation also changed.

Rather than deny that the president was considering firing Mueller, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserted that the president believes he has the power to dismiss the special counsel.

“We’ve been advised that the president certainly has the power to make that decision,” she said.

Democrats have seized on the remarks from Trump and the White House to renew pressure on GOP leadership to bring up legislation protecting Mueller.

“I say to my Republican colleagues, you can no longer rely on anonymous sources as a reason for delay or inaction on legislation to protect Mr. Mueller and avoid a constitutional crisis,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats slam Trump for considering Putin’s ’absurd’ request to question Americans Judge Kavanaugh confounds the left This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation MORE (D-N.Y.) said on Wednesday.

Booker separately noted Trump is signaling he believes he has the “power” and the “will” to fire Mueller, giving the legislation “newfound urgency.”

But the bill faces long odds of passing the chamber, much less becoming law.

More than half of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, including Grassley, have questioned whether legislation limiting Trump’s ability to fire Mueller is unconstitutional or have suggested a bill isn’t needed.

“I’ve never been convinced that it’s constitutional for us to tell the president who he can hire and fire,” said Kennedy, a member of the committee.

Asked if he would vote against it, he added, “That’s my plan right now.”

A spokesman for GOP Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeWisconsin GOP Senate candidate rips his own parents for donations to Dems GOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE MORE (Utah) said he believes the legislation is unconstitutional.

Grassley also hasn’t said he will support the bill, despite bringing it up for the vote.

A spokesman didn’t respond to a question about his position, or reports that he wants to offer an amendment. 

With at least Tillis and Graham expected to join with every Democrat in voting “yes,” the bill would have the votes to clear the committee. But how it gets 60 votes or the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a potential veto is less clear.

“I don’t know the answer to that. ... The biggest question I would have is, if it did pass, would the president sign it? I think it’s unlikely that he would,” Cornyn said, asked about potential floor time.

Thune added that Grassley would need to talk to McConnell “about whether he wants to move it out [to] the floor and vote on it.”

“No, not at 60, for sure,” he said, asked if he thought it could pass the Senate.

The bill would face an even rockier path in the House, where some conservative hard-liners are publicly urging Trump to fire Justice Department officials. 

In addition to opposition from Trump allies and libertarian-minded senators like Lee, the special counsel bill is getting a skeptical reception from more moderate members of the caucus.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials Flake: Trump's Russia summit ‘truly an Orwellian moment’ MORE (R-Ariz.) — who reiterated on Wednesday that he has “full confidence” in Mueller — said this week that he is “not convinced that what’s been put forward is constitutional.”

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report — Russia furor grips Washington Overnight Health Care: Novartis pulls back on drug price hikes | House Dems launch Medicare for All caucus | Trump officials pushing ahead on Medicaid work requirements Senate panel to vote next week on banning 'gag clauses' in pharmacy contracts MORE (R-Maine), another moderate, said there are “legitimate” constitutional issues with the legislation.

“I wish there weren’t, but there are,” she said.

Alexander Bolton contributed.