Partisan tensions rise as Mueller bill delayed

Legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE is running into steep political headwinds even as President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE is weighing cracking down on the Russia investigation. 

The bill got a boost of momentum when GOP Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySpeaker Pelosi, it's time to throw American innovators a lifeline Barr: Inspector general's report on alleged FISA abuses 'imminent' Pelosi aide hopeful White House will support drug-pricing bill despite criticism 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 SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action 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 FeinsteinSenate Democrats introduce Violence Against Women Act after bipartisan talks break down Harris shares video addressing staffers the night Trump was elected: 'This is some s---' Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda 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 ComeyThere are poor ideas, bad ones and Facebook's Libra Trump has considered firing official who reported whistleblower complaint to Congress: report Broadcast, cable news networks to preempt regular programming for Trump impeachment coverage 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 KlobucharHillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal Google sparks new privacy fears over health care data 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 TillisThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' Trump rules out total rollback of Chinese tariffs 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 GrahamGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Graham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial 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 CornynGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Overnight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Senate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges MORE (R-Texas).

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Graham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial 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 ScottOn The Money: Appeals court clears way for Congress to seek Trump financial records | Fed chief urges Congress to boost US workforce | Federal deficit hits 4 billion in one month | China talks hit snag over agricultural purchases GOP senator blasts Dem bills on 'opportunity zones' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight 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 RosensteinDemocrats ask judge to force McGahn to comply with subpoena Democrats ask court to force DOJ's hand on Mueller grand jury materials Washington celebrates diplomacy — and baseball — at Meridian Ball 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.”