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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 (Bob) MuellerBarr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting 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 GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Republican senators urge Trump to dodge pardon controversies Grassley suggests moderate Democrats for next Agriculture secretary MORE (R-Iowa) shows there is a growing appetite among some in the GOP for a legislative response to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts 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 GrahamBiden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country The Memo: Harris moves signal broad role as VP Former US attorney asks for probe of allegations Graham pressured Georgia official MORE (R-S.C.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisRep. Mark Walker announces Senate bid in North Carolina Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge MORE (R-N.C.), Cory BookerCory BookerJudge whose son was killed by gunman: 'Federal judiciary is under attack' Biden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Policy center calls for new lawmakers to make diverse hires MORE (D-N.J.) and Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate 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 ThuneTrump doubles down on Section 230 repeal after GOP pushback Congress faces late-year logjam Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill 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 CornynThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Pressure builds as UK approves COVID-19 vaccine Biden brushes off criticism of budget nominee Republican frustration builds over Cabinet picks 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 FeinsteinFeinstein pushes for California secretary of state to replace Harris in Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot 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 SchumerChuck SchumerPelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms Trump supporters could hand Senate control to Democrats 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 LeeGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge 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 FlakeBiden eyeing Cindy McCain for UK ambassador position: report Profiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers McSally concedes Arizona Senate race 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 CollinsBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him GOP blocks effort to make payroll tax deferral optional for federal workers COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks 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.