Senate panel approves bill to protect special counsel

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Thursday to protect special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 TillisGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (N.C.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate MORE (S.C.), Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyBiden names new watchdog at finance agency after embattled IG departs McConnell warns Democrats against 'artificial timeline' for infrastructure deal Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet MORE (Iowa) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (Ariz.).

Republican Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchDrug prices are declining amid inflation fears The national action imperative to achieve 30 by 30 Financial market transactions should not be taxed or restricted MORE (Utah), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThis week: Senate starts infrastructure sprint Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet MORE (Utah), John CornynJohn CornynGOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal MORE (Texas), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators MORE (Idaho), Ben SasseBen SasseWhite House cyber chief backs new federal bureau to track threats Sasse calls China's Xi a 'coward' after Apple Daily arrest Defunct newspaper's senior editor arrested in Hong Kong MORE (Neb.), John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (La.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade MORE (Texas) opposed it.

The vote marks the first time Congress has advanced legislation to formally protect Mueller from being fired by President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Biden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic 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 BookerWomen urge tech giants to innovate on office return Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-N.J.) and Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Lack of transatlantic cooperation on trade threatens global climate change goals 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 DurbinCongress should butt out of Supreme Court's business Inmates grapple with uncertainty over Biden prison plan Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (D-Ill.) called the original amendment a “deal breaker,” while Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinNearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Stripping opportunity from DC's children 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 Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal On The Money: Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban | Trump attorney says he will fight release of tax returns 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.