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) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyAnother voice of reason retires Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — FDA moves to sell hearing aids over-the-counter McConnell: GOP should focus on future, not 'rehash' 2020 MORE (R-Iowa) shows there is a growing appetite among some in the GOP for a legislative response to President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' 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.”

ADVERTISEMENT

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

Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPennsylvania Republican becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress McCain: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner had 'no goddamn business' attending father's funeral Mayorkas tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case MORE (R-S.C.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair GOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden MORE (R-N.C.), Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Emanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing MORE (D-N.J.) and Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsGlasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal Manchin threatens 'zero' spending in blowup with Sanders: reports Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals 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 ThuneDemocratic frustration with Sinema rises Senate Republicans raise concerns about TSA cyber directives for rail, aviation Democrats narrow scope of IRS proposal amid GOP attacks 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 CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit 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 Feinstein Ban on new offshore drilling must stay in the Build Back Better Act Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Jane Fonda to push for end to offshore oil drilling in California 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 SchumerManchin meeting with Biden, Schumer in Delaware Progressives' optimism for large reforms dwindles Democratic frustration with Sinema rises 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 LeeCawthorn, Lee introduce bills banning interstate travel vaccine mandate Retreating economy creates new hurdle for Democrats in 2022 McConnell vows GOP won't help raise debt ceiling in December after Schumer 'tantrum' 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 FlakeFlake donating unused campaign funds to Arizona nonprofit focused on elections: report Biden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report 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 - Presented by Uber - Biden makes his pitch as tax questions mount Emanuel defends handling of Chicago police shooting amid opposition to nomination Emanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing 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.