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Sen. Mike Lee blocks effort to vote on bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee blocked a bipartisan attempt to force a Senate vote on legislation designed to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.

Citing late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Utah Republican argued that passing the bill would create a "de facto fourth branch of government, fundamentally undermining the principle of separation of powers that is so core to our liberty."

"And on that basis, madam president, I object," he said.

Lee said the "prosecutorial authority of the United States belongs to the Department of Justice," and the DOJ and its officers, after Senate confirmation, answer to the president.

It only takes one objection under Senate rules to block a request for unanimous consent to bring legislation forward.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill in April that would shield Mueller from any attempt by President Donald Trump to fire him.

Lee and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, voted against the measure, arguing it was unconstitutional. Both, however, have said the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election should be allowed to run its course.

On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, of Arizona, and Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., pushed for a floor vote on the bill.

"The findings of the investigation are too important for our national security and well-being of democratic institutions to be halted or watered down," Flake said. "Mr. Mueller must be able to preserve the work he has done by completing this very thorough investigation and for his findings to be made public."

Flake, one of Trump's most vocal critics who is not returning to the Senate, said the bill would ensure that happens.

The legislation, he said, would protect the integrity of the special counsel's investigation and prevent the executive branch from "inappropriately interfering" in independent investigations in the future.

Flake said the bill was also blocked several weeks ago and that he, Booker and Coons would continue to push to bring the bill to the Senate floor.

In response to a question on the floor from Coons, Lee acknowledged the Scalia opinion he cited was the minority opinion.

"At the time it was written, it was somewhat novel, somewhat new. Since then it has become a widely adopted view, a view adopted by people across the political spectrum regardless of their ideology," he said. "I challenge every one of you to read it. It's right."