McConnell, Flake clash over protecting Mueller probe

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Eighty-eight years of debt pieties Ernst says Trump should sign defense policy bill with military base renaming provision MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism 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 (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 GrahamTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Russian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide Jaime Harrison seeks to convince Democrats he can take down Lindsey Graham MORE (R-S.C.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Poll: Biden, Trump locked in neck-and-neck battle for North Carolina GOP senator: Russia should be labeled state sponsor of terrorism if intelligence is accurate 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 TrumpTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Trump to hold outdoor rally in New Hampshire on Saturday Eighty-eight years of debt pieties 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 SessionsSupreme Court blocks order that relaxed voting restrictions in Alabama Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report Tuberville campaign bus catches fire in Alabama 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 ThuneTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names McConnell: Trump shouldn't veto defense bill over renaming Confederate bases 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 GrassleyTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP IRS, taxpayers face obstacles ahead of July 15 filing deadline Congress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits 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 GardnerTrump nominee faces Senate hurdles to securing public lands post The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks 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 CollinsTrump sealed his own fate Congress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenators will have access to intelligence on Russian bounties on US troops Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators push to limit transfer of military-grade equipment to police MORE (Alaska), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranWatchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' probe report Senate Democrats push federal agencies to combat coronavirus scams and robocalls Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Mayor Quinton Lucas MORE (Kan.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism 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.