McConnell, Flake clash over protecting Mueller probe

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Anti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age Former Bush assistant: Mueller report makes Obama look 'just plain bad' MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. 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 (R-Ariz.) clashed during a closed-door lunch meeting Thursday, with McConnell challenging Flake’s effort to force a vote on legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.  

McConnell pressured Flake to back off his strategy of blocking judicial nominees in the Senate Judiciary Committee in an effort to force a vote on his bill that would protect the special counsel from being fired without good cause. 

Flake, however, dug in his heels and made clear that he’s not going to budge. 

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McConnell was equally implacable, according to senators who witnessed the argument. 

“It’s a standoff,” said a Republican senator who attended the lunch. 

Their fight reflects a larger divide within the GOP conference. 

Some GOP senators argue the chamber should pass legislation to protect Mueller. 

Flake and Sens. 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 (R-S.C.) and 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 (R-N.C.) have co-sponsored legislation that would codify Justice Department rules requiring that a special counsel only be fired for good cause.

Critics, however, contend that there’s no danger of President TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE firing Mueller and predict the bill would die in the GOP-controlled House. 

The fate of the Mueller investigation became a more pressing concern to some Republican senators after Trump forced Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Memo: Mueller's depictions will fuel Trump angst Collins: Mueller report includes 'an unflattering portrayal' of Trump Trump frustrated with aides who talked to Mueller MORE to resign immediately after the midterm elections. 

He then named Matthew Whitaker, Sessions's chief of staff and a critic of Mueller's Russia probe, to serve as acting attorney general. 

McConnell argued at the lunch meeting that the legislation would chew up precious floor time during the lame-duck session and leave less time for must-pass bills such as the unfinished spending bills and the farm bill, according to sources familiar with the conversation.

Flake, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, didn’t buy that argument. 

He replied that Democrats wouldn’t object to speedy consideration of the special counsel protection bill because their entire caucus supports it, sources said. 

Flake argued that the bill could be dealt with in a day as long as other members of the GOP conference didn’t object to it and force McConnell to waste time getting through a filibuster.

Some Republican senators floated the compromise of crafting some kind of nonbinding resolution that would express support for protecting Mueller and future special counsels from unjustified dismissal. 

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But Flake rejected that option, too. He argued that the Judiciary Committee passed the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act in April by a 14-7 vote and the Senate should act on it, instead of some nonbinding measure that hasn’t yet received committee review. 

Flake, a member of the Judiciary Committee, tried to force McConnell’s hand Thursday by saying he would continue to object to moving Trump’s judicial nominees to the floor unless the special counsel protection bill gets a vote. 

McConnell is telling colleagues he’s standing firm. 

Asked if there’s any chance that McConnell will let Flake have a vote, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTelehealth is calling — will Congress pick up? GOP grows tired of being blindsided by Trump Hillicon Valley: Assange faces US charges after arrest | Trump says WikiLeaks 'not my thing' | Uber officially files to go public | Bezos challenges retail rivals on wages | Kremlin tightens its control over internet MORE (S.D.), who was elected Wednesday as the next Senate Republican whip, said, “I don’t think he has any intention at this point of going down that path.”

McConnell has stated repeatedly that there is no danger of Trump firing Mueller and says he supports the special counsel completing his investigation. 

Flake said after the lunch that while some colleagues have tried to pressure him, others have voiced support.

Asked Thursday if fellow GOP senators are unhappy with his hardball approach to getting a vote, Flake said, “That’s a safe assumption.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman 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 (R-Iowa) held more than 15 judicial nominees at a committee business meeting Thursday after Flake declared he would block them. 

Speaking to reporters afterward, Grassley said he didn’t think he could move any more nominees without Flake’s support unless he can convince Democrats on the panel to vote with him. 

Republicans control 11 seats on the committee while the Democrats have 10. That means if Flake votes "no" and Democrats stay unified, Republicans can’t report nominees with favorable nominations.

McConnell could try to bring those nominees to the floor without committee approval, but it would break precedent and undermine the panel’s role. 

“That’s never been done as far as I know,” Grassley told reporters Thursday morning. “I don’t think that would be done.”

McConnell has made confirming Trump’s judicial nominees his top priority in 2018 and regularly touts how many judges the Senate has confirmed to federal appellate and district courts. 

Grassley suggested on Thursday that many of the nominees pending in committee might have to wait until next year and that the Senate should focus on the 35 nominees already passed out of committee. 

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying MORE (R-Colo.) predicted that McConnell would find some way through the impasse because he places so much importance on nominees. 

“Mitch McConnell is a judicial nominations machine … so anything that’s going to slow that down he’s obviously going to [fix],” he said. 

Flake says there is growing support within his conference for passing a bill to protect Mueller. 

“Ultimately the pressure will build for us to bring this bill to the floor or to put it as part of the spending bill so it’s part of must-pass legislation,” he said.

Grassley, who voted for the special counsel protection bill on the committee level, said Thursday that it deserves a vote. 

“It’s legitimate that the bill be brought up,” he said. “It would satisfy me if it became law because I voted for it.”

Other Republican senators who have expressed support for legislation protecting Mueller and future special counsels from unjustified termination include Graham, Tillis, Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Collins: Mueller report includes 'an unflattering portrayal' of Trump GOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiCain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed License to discriminate: Religious exemption laws are trampling rights in rural America MORE (Alaska), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranLive coverage: Barr faces Senate panel as he prepares release of Mueller report Hillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — House panel approves bill restoring net neutrality | FTC asks for more help to police tech | Senate panel advances bill targeting illegal robocalls Senate panel advances bill penalizing illegal robocalls MORE (Kan.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump Democrats introduce bill to rein in Trump on tariffs MORE (Tenn.). 

“There are some who are not on the committee who will vote for this,” he said of Senate GOP colleagues. “It will pass on the floor.”

The legislation would codify existing Justice Department regulations requiring that the special counsel can only be fired for good cause by a Senate-confirmed department official.

It would also create a 10-day window for a judge to decide whether any termination of a special counsel is for good cause and stop the firing if it fails to meet the cause requirement.