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Bipartisan duo aims to force vote on Senate bill to protect Mueller investigation

Special Counsel Robert Mueller leaves a meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington on June 21, 2017. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Eric Thayer.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller leaves a meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington on June 21, 2017. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Eric Thayer.

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan pair of lawmakers is seeking to force a Senate vote Wednesday on a bill to prevent special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired, an effort that has been revived over concerns President Donald Trump’s acting attorney general could seek to end the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In a statement announcing their plan, Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz, and Christopher A. Coons, D-Del., made no mention of Matthew Whitaker, whom Trump appointed last week to lead the Justice Department following Jeff Sessions’s forced resignation as attorney general. But moderate Republicans have echoed Democrats’ concerns about Whitaker’s stated disdain for Mueller’s work and their worry that Whitaker will attempt to restrict, defund or otherwise undermine an investigation that continues to scrutinize Trump’s campaign.

Flake and Coons, who are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, intend to brief the media Wednesday afternoon after their speeches on the Senate floor.

Last week, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that she thought the Senate should vote on the bill, which would give any fired special counsel the ability to appeal their termination to a panel of three federal judges.

“Senate debate and passage of this bill would send a powerful message that Mr. Mueller must be able to complete his work unimpeded,” Collins said in a statement, in which she also said she was “concerned” about Whitaker’s views on Mueller’s probe.

It is unclear that other Republicans agree - including the Republicans who co-wrote the bill. Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have suggested in recent weeks that the bill isn’t necessary because Trump would never fire Mueller.

Legislative rules also stipulate that an objection from a single senator could prevent a vote from happening. There is also the matter of getting such a measure through the House, where Republicans still control the majority.

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But if all Democratic senators rally around the bill, Flake and Coons may be able to demonstrate that a majority of the chamber favors legislation to give Mueller legal recourse in the event he is fired.

This is not the first time Flake, who is retiring at the end of the year, has broken from his party to team up with Coons. Last month, the duo joined forces to push the Senate to demand an FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations made against Brett Kavanaugh before voting on his nomination to the Supreme Court. In that instance, they succeeded.

Earlier Wednesday, the Justice Department issued a memo defending the legality of Whitaker’s appointment. Some legal experts have suggested that Whitaker, who was Sessions’s chief of staff, is ineligible for the attorney general job, even on an acting basis, because he was not confirmed by the Senate.

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The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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