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.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Today the Senate Judiciary Committee took a surprising step to buck party leaders and stand up to President Trump. Four Republicans voted with every Democrat on the committee to approve a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: We're not saying you can't fire somebody. We're saying somebody's going to look over your shoulder in these hotly contested political environments.
CHANG: That's South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham explaining why he helped write the bill even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said it will not get a vote in the full Senate. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is here to explain what comes next. Hey, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right. So first explain, what would this bill do?
SNELL: First of all, the bill would give Mueller or any future special counsel a right to challenge his or her firing in court. It would give them 10 days to apply for a speedy judicial review to make sure that he or she was fired with good cause. It would also require the attorney general to update Congress if a special counsel is either hired or fired, and if they made any changes to the scope of what that investigation would be. So if they - if there were any changes to what the special counsel was allowed to look into, if it got smaller or bigger.
SNELL: It's a pretty narrow bill, but supporters think it would give Congress more oversight in a highly political situation. And several senators said that Congress has a bigger role to play when the White House is being investigated because that situation creates huge political tensions and there's big opportunity for political conflicts of interest.
CHANG: All right, so four Republicans, including the chairman of the judiciary committee, Chuck Grassley, voted for the measure...
CHANG: ...But many more Republican members did not. What don't they like about the bill?
SNELL: They break down into a couple of different camps. There are the people who say they just don't think it's necessary to protect Mueller because they don't think the president will fire him, those who say this specific bill might be unconstitutional. And then there are the people who believe a little bit of both. Now, the people who say it isn't necessary is that they just think that the president knows that it would be a political disaster to fire Mueller, and they don't think he'll do it. They also think passing a bill like this would essentially taunt the president by saying that, you know, we don't - we think you're going to do this and poking the bear a little bit (laughter).
CHANG: Huh. OK (laughter).
SNELL: Others think there's a constitutional problem with Congress getting involved in any kind of special investigator. They say Congress would be overstepping their legal limits. And they point to an opinion written in 1988 by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They say he makes the point that prosecuting these kinds of alleged crimes isn't Congress's job. Judiciary committee member Ben Sasse is one of those people.
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BENJAMIN SASSE: I think that it would be disastrous for the nation to fire Mueller, and it would be politically suicidal for the president. And yet, the Scalia opinion - many of us feel that we're bound by it.
SNELL: You can hear Sasse there expressing something that a lot of judiciary committee members said today - Mueller shouldn't be fired, and we in Congress shouldn't step in.
CHANG: Explain to all of us, what is the point of voting on a bill that has no chance of becoming law?
SNELL: Yeah, this is politics through and through. Democrats and some Republicans want to send a message that there are people in Congress willing to stand up to Trump. Here's how judiciary committee Chairman Chuck Grassley explained it.
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CHUCK GRASSLEY: In some ways, today's vote will say a lot about how each of us view our responsibilities as a senator. We took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. But we're neither judges or presidents.
SNELL: This was also an important moment for Democrats who can now say that there are Republicans on the Hill who voted to protect Mueller. And they can say that this and the investigation in general isn't a partisan exercise. And that's something that you can expect to hear them say anytime the White House calls the investigation a partisan witch hunt.
CHANG: All right. Well, earlier we heard Senator Sasse says he thinks protecting Mueller is a good instinct even if this bill might have problems. So what other options does Congress have?
SNELL: A few Republicans offered a compromise plan to allow the Senate to vote on a nonbinding bill, kind of a toothless effort to say, we in Congress support the idea of the Mueller investigation. That's not really going anywhere. But the other option is that this bill doesn't die because McConnell doesn't want to vote on it today. If Trump did decide to fire Mueller, they could vote on it then and make all of the provisions retroactive to cover Mueller as well.
CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.
SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.