Senate panel approves bill to protect special counsel

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Thursday to protect special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe 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.

In the end, four Republicans voted for the bill: Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration GOP senator dedicates heart photo to wife from Senate floor for Valentine's Day MORE (N.C.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Warren: Officials have duty ‘to invoke 25th amendment’ if they think Trump is unfit MORE (S.C.), Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Smaller tax refunds put GOP on defensive | Dems question IRS on new tax forms | Warren rolls out universal child care proposal | Illinois governor signs bill for minimum wage Smaller tax refunds put GOP on defensive High stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks MORE (Iowa) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (Ariz.).

Republican Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchOrrin Hatch Foundation seeking million in taxpayer money to fund new center in his honor Mitch McConnell has shown the nation his version of power grab Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Utah Senate votes to scale back Medicaid expansion | Virginia abortion bill reignites debate | Grassley invites drug execs to testify | Conservative groups push back on e-cig crackdown MORE (Utah), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Push for paid family leave heats up ahead of 2020 MORE (Utah), John CornynJohn CornynO'Rourke mulling another Senate run as well as presidential bid Texas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 MORE (Texas), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoPrivate insurance plays a critical part in home mortgage ecosystem On The Money: Lawmakers race to pass border deal | Trump rips 'stingy' Democrats, but says shutdown would be 'terrible' | Battle over contractor back pay | Banking panel kicks off data security talks Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers press officials on 2020 election security | T-Mobile, Sprint execs defend merger before Congress | Officials charge alleged Iranian spy | Senate panel kicks off talks on data security bill MORE (Idaho), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Push for cosponsors for new 'Medicare for all' bill | Court lets Dems defend ObamaCare | Flu season not as severe as last year, CDC says Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears MORE (Neb.), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke mulling another Senate run as well as presidential bid Texas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes Trump working on labels for 2020 Dems: report MORE (Texas) opposed it.

The vote marks the first time Congress has advanced legislation to formally protect Mueller from being fired by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ 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 Anthony BookerSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day Gillibrand uses Trump Jr. tweet to fundraise Trump: Bernie Sanders 'missed his time' for White House MORE (D-N.J.) and Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsTrump got in Dem’s face over abortion at private meeting: report Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Actor Chris Evans meets with Democratic senators before State of the Union 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.

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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSanders: 'Not crazy' about nixing the Senate filibuster Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Trump praises law enforcement response to shooting at Illinois business MORE (D-Ill.) called the original amendment a “deal breaker,” while Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFeinstein says she thinks Biden will run after meeting with him Trump judicial nominee Neomi Rao seeks to clarify past remarks on date rape Bottom Line 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 McConnellDems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle Sanders: 'Not crazy' about nixing the Senate filibuster McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump 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. 

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.