Bill to Protect Special Counsel Mueller Is Headed for a Committee Vote

Robert S. Mueller III in 2013. The Senate Judiciary Committee could vote as soon as next week on bipartisan legislation that would allow special counsels like Mr. Mueller to appeal their firing to a panel of judges and possibly be reinstated.

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to vote in the coming weeks on bipartisan legislation introduced Wednesday that would allow special counsels like Robert S. Mueller III to appeal their firing to a panel of judges and possibly be reinstated.

The committee’s chairman, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, was seeking expedited consideration of the bill that would have allowed for a vote as soon as next week. That pace was slowed somewhat by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, his Democratic counterpart, who said the committee needed another week to review an amendment Mr. Grassley planned to offer.

The chairman’s request came as many Republicans continue to say that no legislative action is necessary, despite continuing threats from President Trump against Mr. Mueller and senior Justice Department officials. Republican leaders have steadfastly maintained that Mr. Trump knows the consequences of firing Mr. 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 Mr. Trump and push Republican leaders to respond.

The compromise bill, written by Senators Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, and Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey, both Democrats, 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.

The bill also creates a 10-day window within which a special counsel can seek judicial review of the firing. If it is determined that the special counsel was not, in fact, fired for good cause, then he would be reinstated. In the interim, it would ensure that the special counsel’s staff and investigative materials are preserved.

Democrats, who have been clamoring for Congress to act to protect Mr. Mueller, touted the new legislation as a breakthrough but privately conceded that odds remained stacked against its passage. Mr. Tillis, in his own comments, sought to put distance between the measure and the bubbling tensions between Mr. Trump and Mr. 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,” Mr. Tillis said. “The integrity and independence of special counsel investigations are vital to reaffirming the American people’s confidence in our nation’s rule of law.”

Mr. 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.

In a statement late Wednesday, Ms. Feinstein said she was worried that the amendment, which she had not seen, could “undermine the investigation.” She did not detail her concerns.

“I’ve discussed this with Chairman Grassley and he has agreed to not take action this week but instead place the bill on the committee’s markup calendar next week,” she wrote.

The aides said that Mr. Grassley is studying statutes that place some limits on the firing of certain agency inspectors general, with an eye toward echoing some of that language for a Justice Department special counsel. Some such statutes, for example, require the executive branch to give Congress 30 days’ notice and an explanation before such an official is removed.

With or without Mr. Grassley’s amendment, even proponents of the bill concede that its chances of becoming law remain slim. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, 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 D. Ryan of Wisconsin would also have to put it up for a vote, and he has not yet commented on the new bill. If it passed Congress, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s increasingly aggressive posture against Mr. Mueller prompted speculation that he might try to fire him.

Speaking Monday, after F.B.I. agents raided the office and the hotel room of his personal lawyer, Mr. Trump openly mused about the possibility of firing Mr. Mueller. And The New York Times has reported that twice — last June and again in December — Mr. Trump undertook to have Mr. Mueller removed, before backing down.

Mr. Grassley’s decision to propose an amendment requiring reports was driven in part by concerns raised by constitutional scholars that various proposals to protect special counsels from arbitrary firing could infringe on executive power and might not survive Supreme Court review.

The amendment requiring more reports to Congress would be written so that even if other parts of the bill were struck down, the remainder would stay law and ensure Congress had some visibility into the department’s decision making.

The ability of Congress to shield a prosecutor from being fired by the attorney general at the president’s direction is contested. After the Watergate scandal, Congress created the position of an independent counsel who answered to a panel of judges, not to the attorney general. In 1988, the Supreme Court upheld that arrangement as constitutional.

But after the Iran-contra and Whitewater investigations, both parties came to see such a position as a bad idea, and Congress let the independent counsel statute lapse in 1999.

In September at a Judiciary Committee hearing on the two rival bills — one that would let a panel of judges decide whether to fire a special counsel, and one that, like the compromise bill, would let such a panel review an attorney general’s determination that there was good cause to fire one — legal scholars disagreed about whether the proposals were constitutional.

Still, in a floor speech on Wednesday, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, touted the unveiling of the compromise legislation and Mr. Grassley’s willingness to move it through the committee, while urging Mr. 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?” Mr. Schumer said.

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