McConnell, Flake clash over protecting Mueller probe

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAre Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' Churches are arming and training congregants in response to mass shootings: report MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeArpaio considering running for former sheriff job after Trump pardon Overnight Energy: Warren edges past Sanders in poll of climate-focused voters | Carbon tax shows new signs of life | Greens fuming at Trump plans for development at Bears Ears monument Carbon tax shows new signs of life in Congress 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) Swan MuellerTrump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony Kellyanne Conway: 'I'd like to know' if Mueller read his own report 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 GrahamGraham warns Trump on Taliban deal in Afghanistan: Learn from 'Obama's mistakes' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE (R-S.C.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe United States broken patent system is getting worse Gun reform groups to pressure GOP senators with rallies in all 50 states To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies 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 watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? 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 SessionsLewandowski says he's 'happy' to testify before House panel The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Nadler subpoenas Lewandowski, former White House official for testimony 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 ThuneSchumer blasts 'red flag' gun legislation as 'ineffective cop out' Lawmakers jump-start talks on privacy bill Trump border fight throws curveball into shutdown prospects 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 GrassleyGOP senators call for Barr to release full results of Epstein investigation Trump health official: Controversial drug pricing move is 'top priority' Environmental advocates should take another look at biofuels 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 GardnerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down 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 CollinsCook Political Report moves Susan Collins Senate race to 'toss up' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief Congress kicks bipartisan energy innovation into higher gear MORE (Alaska), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranSenators introduce bill aimed at protecting Olympic athletes in response to abuse scandals Overnight Defense: Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sales | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan | Senators tee up nominations, budget deal ahead of recess Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sale MORE (Kan.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' 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.