By CHAD DAY and MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Bipartisan legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller now lies in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to advance it.
McConnell, R-Ky., has said the bill is unnecessary and he won’t let it reach the Senate floor. But the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee added to the pressure on McConnell by voting for the measure and saying McConnell should change his mind.
“While my constitutional concerns remain, I believe this bill should be considered by the full Senate,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
Republicans have split on the issue amid President Donald Trump’s repeated criticism of Mueller’s Russia investigation. That break was apparent Thursday as four Republicans joined Democrats in the 14-7 vote to pass the legislation from committee. For now, the move is largely symbolic, given McConnell’s opposition, but it shows the complexity of Republican support for Trump when it comes to the president’s attacks on Mueller.
Nearly all GOP senators say Trump shouldn’t fire Mueller. But Republicans who support the legislation say it’s necessary to guard against presidential interference by giving Congress more oversight power.
Two Republicans and two Democrats introduced the bill this month as Trump ramped up criticism of Mueller, who is investigating potential ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign as well as possible obstruction of justice by the president.
Trump appeared to suggest Thursday he has no intention of trying to fire Mueller, for now. But he left open the possibility he could change his mind.
“I am very disappointed in my Justice Department. But because of the fact that it’s going on, and I think you’ll understand this, I have decided that I won’t be involved,” Trump said in a telephone interview with “Fox & Friends.” ”I may change my mind at some point, because what’s going on is a disgrace.”
The legislation would give any special counsel a 10-day window to seek expedited judicial review of a firing and would put into law existing Justice Department regulations that a special counsel can only be fired for good cause.
The four lawmakers who wrote the legislation — GOP Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey — hoped committee approval would give them more time to find enough support in the full Senate.
After the vote, the committee’s top Democrat stepped up that effort.
“The American people must know the truth, and this bill should now be brought before the full Senate for debate and a vote,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said in a statement.
With most Democrats on board, the bipartisan group had worked this week to gather additional Republican votes. That included negotiating with Grassley, who floated an amendment that included increased reporting to Congress by the special counsel.
Democrats initially opposed that, saying it could undermine the investigation if the special counsel had to reveal too much to Congress during the investigation. But the two sides reached a compromise.
The revised amendment would require that notification after the investigation was done, along with a report detailing the investigation’s findings and explanations of any charges. It would require notification if a special counsel were removed.
Republicans who supported the bill could be at risk of angering Trump and some of his supporters they represent. Grassley, Graham, Tillis and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., joined Democrats to advance the bill.
In opposing the bill, Utah GOP Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch said it was unconstitutional and unnecessary because Trump already knows that he would face political ruin if he fired Mueller.
“Firing Mueller would cause a firestorm and bring the administration’s agenda to a halt. It could even result in impeachment,” Hatch said.
But Tillis said the bill was necessary to protect not just Mueller but future special counsels, and he said Congress should leave constitutional questions for the Supreme Court to decide.
White House aides have said Trump doesn’t intend to fire either Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation. But White House legislative director Marc Short said last weekend that he couldn’t rule it out in the long term because it’s not known “how far off this investigation is going to veer.
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