Partisan tensions rise as Mueller bill delayed

Legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE is running into steep political headwinds even as President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE is weighing cracking down on the Russia investigation. 

The bill got a boost of momentum when GOP Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyDem calls for Cohen to testify before Senate panel over explosive report Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees IRS shutdown plan fails to quell worries 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 SchumerTrump blasts Pelosi for wanting to leave country during shutdown The Senate should host the State of the Union Dem senators debate whether to retweet Cardi B video criticizing Trump over shutdown 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 FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report — Shutdown fallout — economic distress Feinstein grappling with vote on AG nominee Barr 5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony 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 ComeyDems revive impeachment talk after latest Cohen bombshell Dem calls for Cohen to testify before Senate panel over explosive report The Hill’s 12:30 Report: Day 27 of the shutdown | Cohen reportedly paid company to rig online polls, boost his own image | Atlantic publishes ‘Impeach Donald Trump’ cover story 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 KlobucharCNN analyst Phil Mudd: Barr will ‘crush’ Trump administration 5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony Klobuchar dismisses mock campaign logo as something from 'very enthusiastic supporter' 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 TillisCentrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter GOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight 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 GrahamDems revive impeachment talk after latest Cohen bombshell Overnight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Dem calls for Cohen to testify before Senate panel over explosive report 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 tells GOP senators he’s sticking to Syria and Afghanistan pullout  Texas governor, top lawmakers tell Trump not to use hurricane relief funds to build border wall The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s attorney general pick passes first test MORE (R-Texas).

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTSA agents protest government shutdown at Pittsburgh airport The case for Russia sanctions Pompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation 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 ScottIf Republicans rebuked Steve King, they must challenge Donald Trump McConnell rebukes Steve King over white nationalist comments Steve King faces new storm over remarks about white supremacy 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 Jay Rosenstein5 myths about William Barr William Barr's only 'flaw' is that he was nominated by Trump The Hill's Morning Report — Shutdown fallout — economic distress 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.”