WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are facing renewed pressure to pass legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller, with a handful of GOP senators urging their leadership to hold a vote now that President Donald Trump has pushed out Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons say they will try to bring up the legislation for a vote on the Senate floor Wednesday, citing Sessions' departure and his replacement's criticism of Mueller's Russia investigation. While the effort to force action Wednesday isn't expected to be successful, several other Republicans have said they would vote for the bill, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Maine Sen. Susan Collins and the legislation's GOP co-sponsors, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to hold a vote on the legislation, saying it's unnecessary because Mueller won't be fired. McConnell, or another Republican in his stead, is expected to object to Flake and Coons' request to hold a vote.
"We know how the president feels about the Mueller investigation, but he's never said he wants to shut it down," McConnell said Wednesday. "I've never heard anybody (at the White House) say they want to shut it down. I think it's in no danger, so I don't think any legislation is necessary."
Democrats who will take the House majority in January have said shielding Mueller's investigation will be one of their top priorities. Along with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, they have called for the special counsel bill to be added to a year-end spending bill that must pass in December to avoid a partial government shutdown.
The move by Flake and Coons comes more than a year after Graham and Tillis originally introduced the legislation with Democrats and it underscores the deep concerns many lawmakers have long had over Trump's comments about the investigation. Trump has repeatedly called the probe a "hoax" and leveled personal criticism at the former FBI director. Trump appointed Matt Whitaker, a loyalist who has previously criticized Mueller's investigation, as acting attorney general after Sessions' resignation last week.
Whitaker is now overseeing the probe, which is looking at Trump's 2016 campaign and its ties to Russia. The investigation had previously been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who told Congress that he saw no reason to fire Mueller. Sessions had recused himself from overseeing Mueller because he worked on Trump's campaign, a decision that infuriated Trump.
The bipartisan legislation to protect Mueller was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in April. It would give any special counsel a 10-day window to seek expedited judicial review of a firing and put into law existing Justice Department regulations that a special counsel can only be fired for good cause.
Despite some GOP support, it's unclear if the measure could gain 60 votes in the Senate — and even less clear that Trump would sign a bill that contained the legislation.
On Tuesday, Grassley said he would leave the decision up to McConnell, but "if it comes to a vote, I will vote for that bill." Graham, who is close to Trump, said he doesn't expect Mueller to be fired, "but it would probably be good to have this legislation in place just for the future." Tillis said he was talking to other senators about how they might be able to get it done.
Collins said passage of the bill would "send a powerful message that Mr. Mueller must be able to complete his work unimpeded."
Associated Press Writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.