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 GrassleyOn The Money: Smaller tax refunds put GOP on defensive | Dems question IRS on new tax forms | Warren rolls out universal child care proposal | Illinois governor signs bill for minimum wage Smaller tax refunds put GOP on defensive High stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks MORE (R-Iowa) shows there is a growing appetite among some in the GOP for a legislative response to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ 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 GrahamCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Warren: Officials have duty ‘to invoke 25th amendment’ if they think Trump is unfit MORE (R-S.C.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration GOP senator dedicates heart photo to wife from Senate floor for Valentine's Day MORE (R-N.C.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day Gillibrand uses Trump Jr. tweet to fundraise Trump: Bernie Sanders 'missed his time' for White House MORE (D-N.J.) and Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsTrump got in Dem’s face over abortion at private meeting: report Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Actor Chris Evans meets with Democratic senators before State of the Union 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 ThunePolls: Hiking estate tax less popular than taxing mega wealth, income Will Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall 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 CornynO'Rourke mulling another Senate run as well as presidential bid Texas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 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 says she thinks Biden will run after meeting with him Trump judicial nominee Neomi Rao seeks to clarify past remarks on date rape Bottom Line 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 SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration 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 LeeCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Push for paid family leave heats up ahead of 2020 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 FlakeTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger 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 CollinsTexas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 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.