A bipartisan bill to help protect special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into Russian election interference is one step closer to becoming law, despite opposition from top Senate Republicans and the president’s continued public fuming about the probe.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 14 to 7 on Thursday to pass the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, which would, among other things, allow any fired special counsel to challenge their dismissal in court. All Democrats on the panel voted for the legislation and were joined by four Republicans: Sens. Thom Tillis and Lindsey Graham, two of the bill’s cosponsors, as well as Sen. Jeff Flake and committee chair Sen. Chuck Grassley.
The committee’s vote comes as President Donald Trump continues to criticize Mueller, who is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, and alongside frequent reports that the White House is considering ousting him from the job. Trump has repeatedly dubbed the probe a “witch hunt.”
But the legislation’s path to passage remains uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he does not believe the bill is necessary and will not put it on the Senate floor for a full vote. Even if it were passed by the Senate, the bill would then need to pass the House, where several key Republicans have been vocal critics of Mueller’s probe, and Trump would need to sign it. It’s unlikely the bill would have enough support at this point to override a presidential veto.
The legislation, introduced two weeks ago by Tillis, Graham, and Democratic Sens. Chris Coons and Cory Booker, states that a special counsel “may be removed only for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause, including violation of policies of the Department of Justice.” If dismissed, a special counsel could file for judicial review within 10 days of his or her firing.
Democrats have broadly supported the legislation, expressing deep concerns with Trump’s recent comments about the investigation and his reported attempts to remove Mueller. Republicans, such as Tillis and Graham, have argued that their support for the bill isn’t necessarily tied to Mueller; rather, they want to protect any and all future special counsels. “It’s about the rule of law,” Graham said Thursday.
The committee considered amendments to the bill on Thursday morning, including one from Grassley that the panel unanimously adopted that would require the special counsel to submit a final report to Congress about the investigation’s findings and decisions whether or not to prosecute, as well as any changes in the special counsel’s jurisdiction. A previous version of that amendment nearly derailed committee passage of the bill, but Grassley was able to come to a compromise with Democrats to win their support.
The committee voted against another amendment, proposed by Sen. John Cornyn — the Senate’s number two Republican — and fellow GOP Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, that would have essentially gutted the bill and replaced it with a symbolic show of support for Mueller’s work.
Cornyn and several other key Republicans have expressed concerns with the constitutionality of the bill and stated that they do not believe the legislation is necessary, as they don’t think Trump will try to fire Mueller.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday that it's "imperative that Leader McConnell put this bill on the Senate floor for a vote immediately."
"Rather than waiting for a constitutional crisis, the full Senate should act now," Schumer added.