WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee could vote as soon as next week on bipartisan legislation introduced Wednesday that would allow special counsels like Robert Mueller to appeal their firing to a panel of judges and possibly be reinstated.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has asked its top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, to give the legislation a procedural signoff that would allow an expedited formal drafting and vote — most likely on April 19.
The chairman's request came as many Republicans continue to say that no legislative action is necessary, despite continuing threats from President Donald Trump against Mueller and senior Justice Department officials. Republican leaders have steadfastly maintained that Trump knows the consequences of firing Mueller too well to do so.
But Republicans are under pressure to shift their stance. Even if the legislation never passes Congress, a bipartisan committee vote would send a signal to Trump and push Republican leaders to respond.
The compromise bill, written by Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., would enact a statute codifying an existing Justice Department regulation that says a special counsel may be fired only by the attorney general, and only for good cause, like misconduct.
Democrats, who have been clamoring for Congress to act to protect Mueller, touted the new legislation as a breakthrough, but privately conceded that odds remained stacked against its passage.
Tillis, in his own comments, sought to put distance between the measure and the bubbling tensions between Trump and Mueller's investigation into Russia's election interference and possible ties to the Trump campaign.
"This compromise bipartisan bill helps ensure that special counsels — present or future — have the independence they need to conduct fair and impartial investigations," Tillis said.
Grassley, who has raised concerns about the constitutionality of the bill, plans to offer an amendment to it that would formally require the Justice Department to produce reports to Congress each time there is a change in scope to a special counsel's investigation or if he is fired.
The department would also have to prepare a detailed final report about what a special counsel found and explain any decisions to charge or decline to charge particular suspects, according to Republican committee aides.
With or without Grassley's amendment, even proponents of the bill concede that its chances of becoming law remain slim. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, who would decide whether to put it up for a full Senate vote, said Tuesday that he had not seen "clear indication yet" that such a bill was necessary.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would also have to put it up for a vote, and he has not yet commented on the new bill. If it passed Congress, Trump would most likely veto it.
Still, a bipartisan committee vote would be significant.
Senators from both parties introduced a pair of bills late last summer aimed at protecting Mueller, and the Judiciary Committee held a hearing to consider their constitutionality. But an effort to combine the two bills into one languished for months, as urgency among Republicans dissipated.
Lawmakers involved in the drafting of the new bill said the pace began to pick up again in recent weeks as Trump's increasingly aggressive posture against Mueller prompted speculation that he might try to fire him.
In a floor speech on Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, touted the unveiling of the compromise legislation and Grassley's willingness to move it through the committee, while urging McConnell to let the full Senate vote on it once the committee is done.
"Why not pass this legislation now and avoid a constitutional crisis?" Schumer said.