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Senate panel approves bill to protect special counsel

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Thursday to protect special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE.

In a 14-7 vote, the panel approved the bipartisan proposal that deeply divided Republicans on the committee. 

With every committee Democrat backing the legislation, only one Republican was needed to secure passage.

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In the end, four Republicans voted for the bill: Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisMcConnell backs Garland for attorney general GOP senators demand probe into Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths CNN anchor confronts GOP chairman over senator's vote to convict Trump MORE (N.C.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Progressive support builds for expanding lower courts McConnell backs Garland for attorney general MORE (S.C.), Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley says he'll decide this fall whether to run in 2022 Yellen deputy Adeyemo on track for quick confirmation Durbin: Garland likely to get confirmation vote next week MORE (Iowa) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeKlain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' Tanden's path to confirmation looks increasingly untenable On The Money: What's next for Neera Tanden's nomination MORE (Ariz.).

Republican Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchHow President Biden can hit a home run Mellman: What happened after Ginsburg? Bottom line MORE (Utah), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Key vote for Haaland's confirmation | Update on oil and gas leasing | SEC update on climate-related risk disclosure requirements Haaland on drilling lease moratorium: 'It's not going to be a permanent thing' Overnight Health Care: US surpasses half a million COVID deaths | House panel advances Biden's .9T COVID-19 aid bill | Johnson & Johnson ready to provide doses for 20M Americans by end of March MORE (Utah), John CornynJohn CornynPassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Democrats look to improve outreach to Asian and Latino communities MORE (Texas), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoBecerra says he wants to 'build on' ObamaCare when pressed on Medicare for All Yellen deputy Adeyemo on track for quick confirmation Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill MORE (Idaho), Ben SasseBen SasseOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Key vote for Haaland's confirmation | Update on oil and gas leasing | SEC update on climate-related risk disclosure requirements Josh Hawley is a conservative without a clue Republican Party going off the rails? MORE (Neb.), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzKlain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' Senators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Shelby endorses Shalanda Young for OMB director should Biden pull Tanden's nomination MORE (Texas) opposed it.

The vote marks the first time Congress has advanced legislation to formally protect Mueller from being fired by President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Georgia secretary of state withholds support for 'reactionary' GOP voting bills MORE, who has railed against him in public and reportedly talked in private of dismissing him.

The bill, sponsored by Tillis and Graham (R-S.C.) with Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerCongressional Black Caucus unveils '100 Day Plan' Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill Democrats want businesses to help get LGBT bill across finish line MORE (D-N.J.) and Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsPelosi's '9/11-type' commission to investigate Capitol riot could prove dangerous for Democrats Key players to watch in minimum wage fight Sunday shows - Trump acquittal in second impeachment trial reverberates MORE (D-Del.), would codify Department of Justice regulations that say only a senior Department of Justice official can fire Mueller or another special counsel.

It would give a special counsel an "expedited review" of their firing. If a court determines that it wasn't for "good cause," the special counsel would be reinstated.

The committee also added new reporting requirements into the bill, including notification when a special counsel is appointed or removed and requiring a report be given to Congress after an investigation wraps up; that report would detail the investigation's findings and prosecution decisions.

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Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) blasted the reporting requirements as “reckless” because it would require a special counsel to hand over the names of individuals whom they decided not to prosecute.

But Democrats praised Grassley for being willing to compromise on his amendment, marking a political 180 from as recently as Wednesday, when Democrats were concerned Grassley’s amendment could sink the bill.

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinMurkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Democrats ask FBI for plans to address domestic extremism following Capitol attack Progressive support builds for expanding lower courts MORE (D-Ill.) called the original amendment a “deal breaker,” while Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinProgressive support builds for expanding lower courts Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill What exactly are uber-woke educators teaching our kids? MORE (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel, warned that she would vote against the bill “in its entirety.”

But the publicly released version of Grassley’s amendment didn’t include a provision that would have required a notification to Congress about changes to the “specific nature or scope” of Mueller’s investigation.

Feinstein praised Grassley on Thursday for making the “necessary compromises.” 

“We have a piece of legislation that I believe will stand the test of time and will also stand the test of scrutiny,” she said.

The legislation now heads to the full Senate, where it faces entrenched opposition from key Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKlain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Murkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo MORE (Ky.).

“I'm the one who decides what we take to the floor, that's my responsibility as the majority leader, and we will not be having this on the floor of the Senate,” McConnell told Fox News earlier this month.

The bill doesn't have the 60 votes necessary to pass the Senate, and has even less of a chance to pass the more conservative House. It also would be unlikely to win the two-thirds support needed to override a presidential veto.

McConnell and most GOP senators say publicly that they believe Trump will ultimately decide not to fire Mueller, a former FBI director who is widely respected in Washington. 

They also argue the legislation isn't constitutional and, even if passed, would face a challenge in the courts.

“The special counsel must be permitted to complete his investigation. President Trump should not, and I believe will not, end the investigation,” Hatch wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday. 

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But Hatch, underscoring how most Republicans believe it would be a colossal mistake for Trump to fire Mueller, said the special counsel’s removal would “trigger a crisis, possibly even impeachment.” 

Much of the debate during Thursday's committee vote was between Republican senators on the panel.

The Judiciary Committee voted down an amendment from Cornyn, Hatch and Lee that would have gutted the special counsel bill and replaced it with a nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution on allowing Mueller to finish his investigation.

Sasse, Crapo and Kennedy joined Hatch, Lee and Cornyn to support the GOP amendment.

Grassley, Tillis, Graham, Flake and Cruz voted against the amendment.

- Updated at 11:23 a.m.