Partisan tensions rise as Mueller bill delayed

Legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Trump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts MORE is running into steep political headwinds even as President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE is weighing cracking down on the Russia investigation. 

The bill got a boost of momentum when GOP Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley urges White House to help farmers in year-end tax talks The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday MORE (Iowa) said it would get a committee vote, but the legislation almost immediately got bogged down in partisan finger-pointing and entrenched skepticism among most Republicans.

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A blame game has broken out among Senate Judiciary Committee members about why the bill is being punted until days before the next recess. Grassley, in a whirlwind move, tried to get the panel to take up the bill late last week; instead, a vote isn’t expected until April 26.

The legislation would limit Trump’s ability to fire Mueller and let him be reinstated if a court determines he wasn’t fired for “good cause.” In a sign of Republicans’ anxiety that Trump could try to interfere with the Russia probe months before the midterm elections, a small but growing number of Republicans are signaling they are open to the idea of the bill.

But Democrats are deeply worried that Republicans will try to weaken the bill or attach “poison pill” amendments.

“[I] urge the members of the Judiciary Committee to approve this legislation without watering it down or weakening it with amendments,” said Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTurf war derails bipartisan push on surprise medical bills Senate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA CEO group pushes Trump, Congress on paid family, medical leave MORE (D-N.Y.), who isn’t a member of the panel but weighed in on the looming fight from the Senate floor. 

The Democrats’ concern centers on a forthcoming amendment from Grassley that, according to the GOP senator, would increase reporting to Congress about changes in the probe by Mueller, or any other special investigation, and require lawmakers to be notified if Trump was going to fire a special counsel. 

“If the amendment compromises or defeats the basic purpose of the bill [it’s] a non-starter,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the committee.

Democrats acknowledge they haven’t seen the amendment, which is part of why they wouldn’t sign off on putting the legislation on Thursday’s agenda. But that hasn’t stopped them from publicly fretting that the apparent boost of momentum could result in legislation that actually undermines the special counsel legislation.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Houston police chief stands by criticism of McConnell, Cruz, Cornyn: 'This is not political' MORE (D-Calif.), noting that Congress shouldn’t put “political pressure” on Mueller’s probe, added in her first statement about the bill that, “I’m worried about an amendment we haven’t been able to review that could undermine the investigation.”

Pressed by reporters about her concerns, Feinstein added, “obviously it’s in a sensitive subject area” and Democrats wanted to see it before they vote. She declined to say if more congressional oversight would be a non-starter for Democrats, noting she hadn’t yet seen the amendment.

The apparent lack of trust comes as the Judiciary Committee has fractured over its handling of its own Russia investigation.

Democrats announced they were starting their own probe late last year when Republicans wanted to circle back to Obama-era scandals instead of potential collusion with Russia and the firing of former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeySunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by UANI — Judiciary Democrats approve articles of impeachment setting up House vote next week Huckabee teases Hannity appearance, says he'll explain why Trump is eligible for third term MORE.

This time around, Democrats worry that Republicans could use the additional oversight to influence the probe or force Mueller to signpost his investigation.

“I am concerned if it does anything to violate the separation of powers and the fact that the investigation should be allowed to continue and not have … Congress dictating what’s happening,” said Democratic Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial MORE (Minn.).

Republicans counter that Democrats are being paranoid and slowing down legislation that they have pushed for as Trump has repeatedly lashed out. 

Grassley called concerns that he is trying to undermine the special counsel “completely unfounded.”

“I’m at a loss to see how a call for the administration to be more transparent about decisions involving the special counsel … would undermine the Mueller investigation. ... This delay is uncalled for and unnecessary,” Grassley said in a statement. 

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report Democrats spend big to put Senate in play Group of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' MORE (R-N.C.) added, “I do hope that my colleagues on the other side will take a serious look at the amendment that we’re talking about; I think it makes sense. Part of it’s just, you haven’t seen it.”

Tillis added that the forthcoming amendment also includes “increased transparency to address some of the concerns with some of the actions of some of the people in the Department of Justice that didn’t seem appropriate.”

With Republicans in the majority, if every GOP senator supports the amendment Democrats on the committee would not be able to stop it from being added to the legislation. That could force them to decide whether or not to vote against the overall bill — preventing it from going to the floor.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip MORE (R-S.C.), one of the original co-sponsors of the bill, downplayed the stalemate and noted he was open to changing the legislation.

“They’re trying to work out an amendment … which I think is a good amendment,” he said. “We’ll see if they can do that.”

Feinstein noted Democrats could let the bill get a vote on Thursday, but Grassley predicted that GOP opposition to the bill would delay it until April 26.

The legislation doesn’t face an easier path once it reaches the full Senate, much less the more conservative House, where Trump allies are publicly urging the president to fire top Justice Department officials.

And while White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the administration doesn’t have an official position on the bill, senators expect it would need to ultimately get a two-thirds majority — enough to override a presidential veto.

That’s a herculean task for GOP leadership, who have shown no inclination to bring up the legislation, much less stage Trump’s first veto override going into a midterm election where they are increasingly anxious about holding on to their majorities.

Grassley’s decision to give the bill a committee vote appeared to catch GOP leadership off guard.

“Frankly, there hadn’t been a lot of communication from the committee or anybody else about what’s going on,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn On The Money: Trump, China announce 'Phase One' trade deal | Supreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records | House panel schedules hearing, vote on new NAFTA deal On The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA MORE (R-Texas).

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment CNN's Cuomo promotes 'Dirty Donald' hashtag, hits GOP for 'loyalty oath' to Trump MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters that “most members of Congress” believe Mueller should be able to continue his investigation, but he still has not seen a “clear indication” that they need to pass legislation.

But Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottTrump to sign order penalizing colleges over perceived anti-Semitism on campus: report Here are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump GOP senators unveil bill to expand 'opportunity zone' reporting requirements MORE (R-S.C.) suggested he thought a supermajority in Congress would vote to let that happen. 

“There’s a two-thirds majority at least in both bodies, perhaps a three-quarters majority, who want this investigation to be completed,” he said on ABC’s “The View.”

The fate of the Russia investigation has rattled Washington as Trump has publicly blasted — and reportedly privately mused about firing — Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinRosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe Judge rules former WH counsel McGahn must testify under subpoena MORE, who oversees the probe, after the FBI raided the office of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

But many GOP senators say they remain convinced, at least publicly, that Trump will not try to fire Mueller.

GOP Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) said Trump is “smart enough” to know that getting rid of the special counsel will “provoke a reaction from Congress.”

“I just think all this is premature and academic,” he said. “The president likes to manage out loud. ... He clearly grows anxious when he has an unexpressed thought.”