WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation Thursday that would protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Donald Trump after the panel’s Republican chairman backed off changes that threatened bipartisan support for the bill.
A draft released by Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on Wednesday night omitted language that would require the special counsel to notify congressional leaders “if there is any change made to the specific nature or scope” of the investigation. Democrats had feared that would allow Republicans to meddle and potentially tip off Trump and his allies to developments in the probe.
With that change, all of the Democrats on the committee joined Grassley and several other Republicans to advance the bill on a 14-7 vote.
“It is possible the bill goes too far,” Grassley said at a committee meeting Thursday. “But at the very least, if my amendment is adopted, it will require the executive branch to give more information to Congress, and that will allow Congress to do its job more effectively and to safeguard the interests of the American people.”
With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, dead set against bringing the measure to the Senate floor, House Republicans showing no appetite to take up legislation protecting Mueller and Trump likely to veto any such bill even if it passed, there is little hope that the Senate legislation will become law. But supporters of the legislation say its mere consideration in committee will send an important message to Trump that firing Mueller or his overseers at the Justice Department would spark a fierce backlash on Capitol Hill.
Democrats also held out hope that the bipartisan committee vote Thursday would persuade McConnell, who said last week that the bill was “not necessary,” to change his mind.
“This is an issue that should come to the floor,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, said after the vote. “I hope Senator McConnell will consider that possibility.”
The legislation, the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, was introduced this month by two Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and two Democrats, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Christopher Coons of Delaware.
Four Republicans — Grassley, Graham, Tillis and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona — joined Democrats to advance the bill.
While lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have for months pondered taking action to protect Mueller, the effort gained new traction after federal investigators raided the home and office of Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen in an investigation that spun off from the Mueller probe — prompting fresh attacks on the special counsel from Trump.
The legislation has divided Republicans, pitting a handful of senators who want to protect Mueller against others who have leveled a variety of objections to the bill — including questions about its constitutionality and whether it is necessary.
But every member of the committee who spoke Thursday said it would be unwise — or worse — for Trump to move against Mueller. One Republican who opposed the bill, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, said it would be “politically suicidal.”
Two Republican senators, John Cornyn of Texas and Orrin Hatch of Utah, offered an amendment that would provide nonbinding support for Mueller while also making clear that the Constitution prevents Congress from reining in the president’s prosecutorial powers.
“I think we’re right to convey a strong message to the president not to fire Robert Mueller,” Hatch said Thursday. But, he added, “it’s important that we not overstep our constitutional authority. . . . You cannot protect the law by contravening the supreme law of the land.”
The amendment was defeated on a 15-6 vote.
Grassley and the authors of the bill struck a compromise to lose the language requiring committee leaders to be notified about any change in the investigation’s scope. In the final version, lawmakers would be notified only when the special counsel commences and finishes an investigation, or — in the event a special counsel is terminated — 30 days before the special counsel is given notice.
That requirement is intended to give Congress some opportunity to take recourse — including potential impeachment — to prevent a special counsel from being terminated without cause. The bill is drafted so that the notification requirement would stand even if a court struck down the provision that gives a fired special counsel the ability to appeal a dismissal to a panel of federal judges.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the panel, offered praise for the new draft, saying it was “the result of hours of bipartisan negotiations.”
“I know that sometimes it’s hard to compromise, but you did that, and this is better because of that,” she told Grassley.
The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.