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Senate Panel Tees Up Mueller Protection Bill Despite Headwinds

McConnell indicates measure won’t reach Senate floor

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, pictured here with ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., says the views of Majority Mitch McConnell are important but do not govern what happens in the committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, pictured here with ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., says the views of Majority Mitch McConnell are important but do not govern what happens in the committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee say they want to act on a bill to protect Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III — even if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell essentially killed it by saying it won’t make it to the floor.

They then spoke to the natural follow-up question: Why bother?

“I answered this question I’ll bet about 10 times,” Chairman Charles E. Grassley told the committee Thursday. “The press is always trying to put us between me and the president, or me and the majority leader. I don’t care to be put in the middle of anything.

“I just plan on doing the work this committee ought to do, and how do you get things done?” the Iowa Republican said. “You get it done by moving slow paced through the various steps you go to get there.”

Grassley said he “gave his word” to the sponsors of two bills, first introduced in August, that he would set a vote if they came up with a bipartisan compromise. He announced that motivation “just in case anybody in the leadership of the Republican Party of the U.S. Senate or even on this committee” wonders why the compromise measure was still on the agenda and on pace for a vote next Thursday.

The compromise was introduced this month by Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey, as President Donald Trump asserted that he has the authority to fire the man investigating connections between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives.

The McConnell roadblock

Yet McConnell, R-Ky., controls the floor, and without his support the full Senate won’t vote on the bill. He told Fox News on Tuesday that the measure wasn’t needed and added: “We’ll not be having this on the floor of the Senate.”

Tillis said that as a former speaker of the North Carolina legislature he would have made the same statement McConnell did if there weren’t votes to pass a bill, so it’s up to committee members “to get the votes to get it passed.”

Tillis predicted they will probably advance the bill “on a slim margin,” and criticized his colleagues who have “tried to politicize it, run to the TV and talk about it.”

“If we go down and we pass it out of the committee and make it a lot of political theater, it’s going to go nowhere,” Tillis said. “I think if you just spend more time talking about the substance of the bill and its enduring value then you got a shot. Maybe even have a president that will support it.”

California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris said they hope McConnell changes his mind about putting the bill to a full Senate vote.

“At the very least, if it’s passed out of this committee, it’s ready, and it could go at any time on the floor,” said Feinstein, the ranking member on Judiciary.

Many hurdles

There are clear hurdles for the bill that would protect Mueller as well as future special counsels. The measure would give a special counsel 10 days to ask a federal judge to review whether a removal was for “good cause,” and if not, allow the special counsel to stay in the job.

Even if it passes the Senate, the House is unlikely to support a bill at this time and Trump is unlikely to sign the measure into law. If Trump were to fire Mueller, it’s likely the entire political atmosphere would change.

Grassley and some other Republicans say the bill is not needed because they do not believe Trump will move to fire Mueller. Grassley and other Republicans such as Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have expressed concerns about the constitutionality of a bill that would limit the president’s ability to oversee personnel in the executive branch.

The chairman told reporters after the meeting that no senators have spoken critically to him about his decision to move the legislation, which he has not yet decided if he will support. He was animated about the issue during the hearing.

“Obviously, the views of the majority leader are important to consider, but they do not govern what happens here in the Judiciary Committee,” Grassley said. “If consideration on the floor was the standard for approving a bill in committee or not, we probably wouldn’t be moving any bills out of this committee.”

Grassley bumped up that number from his prepared remarks, which noted that such a standard would mean the committee “wouldn’t do half the legislation we normally do.”

Feinstein said she is still wary of any Republican amendment that would add reporting requirements for the Justice Department.

“I’m concerned about requiring law enforcement officials to report prosecutorial decisions during open criminal investigations,” Feinstein said. “In the name of transparency, we should not create new reporting requirements that could bring about obstruction or political pressure.”  Watch: Senators Support Mueller Protection Bill For Different Reasons

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