Senate panel approves bill to protect special counsel

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Thursday to protect special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) 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 TillisPro-life Christians are demanding pollution protections Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Abrams: Schumer has been 'relentless but thoughtful' about Senate bid MORE (N.C.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars DOJ: Dem subpoena for Mueller report is 'premature and unnecessary' Dems reject Barr's offer to view Mueller report with fewer redactions MORE (S.C.), Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost The 7 most interesting nuggets from the Mueller report Government report says new NAFTA would have minimal impact on economy MORE (Iowa) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Flake opens up about threats against him and his family MORE (Ariz.).

Republican Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchHatch warns 'dangerous' idea of court packing could hurt religious liberty Former Democratic aide pleads guilty to doxing GOP senators attending Kavanaugh hearing How do we prevent viral live streaming of New Zealand-style violence? MORE (Utah), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGOP senator compares Mueller report's obstruction findings to 'Pinocchio' in 'Shrek 3' Dems sound alarm over top DOJ nominee Restore Pell Grant eligibility to people in prison MORE (Utah), John CornynJohn Cornyn Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Trump struggles to reshape Fed Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks MORE (Texas), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoGraham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying Senate needs to stand up to Trump's Nixonian view of the Fed Senate bill seeks to bring freedom back to banking MORE (Idaho), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSenate needs to stand up to Trump's Nixonian view of the Fed GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback The Hill's 12:30 Report: Assange faces US charges after dramatic arrest MORE (Neb.), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump removes sanctions waivers on countries buying oil from Iran The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? Buttigieg steals Beto's thunder 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 calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone 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 BookerWarren unveils plan to cancel student loan debt, create universal free college The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? Booker: Barr's suggestion of spying on Trump campaign 'eroded' public's trust MORE (D-N.J.) and Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMenendez, Rubio lead Senate effort to regulate Venezuelan sanctions Dem report questions State Dept. decision to revoke award to Trump critic Senate Dem calls on Trump to apologize for attacks on McCain 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 DurbinDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal MORE (D-Ill.) called the original amendment a “deal breaker,” while Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDems reject Barr's offer to view Mueller report with fewer redactions Five takeaways from Mueller's report Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates 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 McConnellThe Mueller report is a deterrent to government service Senate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Anti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age 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.