Bill to Protect Mueller Faces a Rocky Path to Passage

Despite the urging of its sponsors, the legislation has little support from Republicans in either chamber.

Sen. Thom Tillis
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
April 16, 2018, 8 p.m.

A bipartisan group of senators are trying to craft legislation that would protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from being fired. It’s not going anywhere fast.

The bill may pass through a Senate panel in the next couple of weeks, but it’s unlikely to hit the Senate floor for a vote because it will split the Republican conference controlling it. It is even less popular among House Republicans, only one of whom has announced he will cosponsor companion legislation being pushed by Judiciary Committee Democrats.

Smaller still are the chances the president would sign it, and a veto-proof majority seems out of reach in either chamber.

But senators may vote on the legislation in the Judiciary Committee as soon as Thursday anyway, driven by a sense that if the president fired Mueller, it would be disastrous for both the president and country. Republicans and Democrats who support the bill say his firing would cause a “constitutional crisis.”

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said that the bill would help the president because it would “remove that narrative," that Trump is considering sacking Mueller, "from the conversation.”

Tillis, a cosponsor of the bill, wrote that “the vast majority” of his Republican colleagues support the probe “proceeding without interference.” But while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have both said Mueller “should be allowed” to do his job, they haven’t embraced the legislation.

Rep. Doug Collins, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said he doesn’t buy Tillis’s explanation and would just as soon take the president at his word.

“Maybe it removes the uncertainty for Mr. Tillis, but when the president has not said it, his advisers say he’s not going to do it, and I think he understands the gravity of that situation, I just think there’s better things [the Senate] could be doing,” Collins said.

Most of the conference has shown little willingness to cosign the legislation. Rep. Walter Jones, a critic of Trump, is the sole GOP cosponsor of the House Judiciary bill, and Rep. Charlie Dent has recently announced he will cosponsor similar but separate legislation.

The House GOP leadership team has also been unanimously opposed to the bill.

“I don't think it's necessary,” Ryan said in an interview that aired on Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, when asked if he would bring the bill to the House floor should it pass the Senate. “I don't think he's going to fire Mueller.”

Other leaders have been less circumspect.

“I don’t understand the need for it because there’s no problem for him,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told National Journal late in March, when asked whether leaders should allow adding a measure protecting Mueller onto a massive federal government spending bill. “I think that’s just a political play. Someone’s trying to get a headline.”

Named the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, the Senate bill aims to codify department regulations to ensure that only a senior Department of Justice official can fire a special counsel for “good cause.” It would also grant Mueller a 10-day window to challenge a potential dismissal in court.

Democrats announced their support for the measure when it was introduced last week. “Why not pass this legislation now, and avoid a constitutional crisis?” asked Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

But now Democrats are worried by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley’s potential changes to the bill. Last week, Grassley said he would bolster the bill by introducing an amendment that would require the attorney general to give a “detailed report to Congress justifying significant decisions involving the special counsel, including the firing of the special counsel.”

Democrats believe that the proposal, which hasn’t been publicly released, could imperil the investigation’s integrity.

“I’m concerned about a reporting provision, or notice requirement, that in effect mandates the special counsel to be accountable to the Congress during the investigation, and to tell the Congress facts about the investigation that may undermine it,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Many conservative members on Capitol Hill don’t think such a bill is necessary, likely reflecting the will of Republicans across the country. A Reuters poll released in February found that nearly three quarters of Republican voters agreed that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations.”

GOP Sen. John Kennedy said he didn’t support the legislation, adding that he thought the president was “way too smart” to fire Mueller. He also said he was concerned it conflicted with the Constitution.

Kennedy said Republicans and Democrats on the Senate panel are “really squabbling” over potential changes to it. “They can’t agree on anything,” he said.

“I’m not sure there’s going to be a bill,” he added.

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