The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to approve a bipartisan bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired, despite warnings from Senate leaders that the bill is unlikely to receive a vote in the full Senate.
Four Republicans, including committee chairman and bill co-sponsor Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, voted with committee Democrats to advance the controversial legislation. The bill would allow Mueller or any future special counsel 10 days to apply for expedited judicial review if he or she were fired from an investigation. It would also require the attorney general to provide a report to Congress if a special counsel is appointed or removed and detailed information if the scope of an investigation is changed.
The committee advanced the bill despite objections from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who called the measure unnecessary and potentially unconstitutional. Grassley told committee members that he is aware of the constitutional concerns that the bill goes too far to constrain the executive branch, but he argued the bill would allow Congress to do its job more effectively.
"Because special counsel investigations only occur where there is a conflict of interest within the executive branch, special counsel investigations are usually matters of great national concern," Grassley said. "And Congress, by exercising its oversight powers, can help the American people to have confidence that these investigations are conducted efficiently and independently."
Supporters of the bill say it will also send a message that the Senate is willing to stand up to President Trump. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, said the bill would "inoculate the special counsel from any political interference" and give Congress important oversight capabilities.
"This means that if a special counsel were to be fired for an unjustified political reason, the decision could be challenged in court," Feinstein said.
"We're not saying you can't fire somebody," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the four Republicans who voted for the bill. "We're saying somebody's going to look over your shoulder in these hotly contested political environments."
Last week, McConnell vowed not to bring the legislation up for a vote.
"This is not necessary; there's no indication that Mueller is going to be fired," McConnell said in a Fox News interview, adding, "We'll not be having this on the floor of the Senate."
Similarly, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said recently on NBC's Meet the Press that such a bill was not necessary.
"I don't think [Trump] is going to fire Mueller," said Ryan.
In a Fox News interview on Thursday, President Trump suggested he was closely watching the Mueller investigation and could intervene. "And you look at the corruption at the top of the FBI, it's a disgrace. And our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from, but at some point, I won't," said Trump.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., seized on those remarks to make the case that the Senate should get a chance to vote on the judiciary committee's newly passed bill.
"Given President Trump's statement just this morning that he may interfere with the special counsel's investigation, it's become even more of an 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," said Schumer.