Conflicting signals on Senate vote to protect Mueller

The #2 Republican in the Senate says there may be a vote on a bill that would protect special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into Russian collusion during the presidential campaign 2016.  But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is saying he doesn't want to spend any time on the legislation.

Democrats have indicated that they will not vote for a budget resolution unless Mueller receives some protection from being fired.  The government faces a partial shutdown of several agencies on December 8 without a vote.


Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said several times Tuesday that the chamber could vote on a bill that would codify some protections for special counsel investigations, a key demand of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has said he will oppose all judicial nominees until he gets his vote.

Without Flake, the 51-member GOP has no margin for error on some nominees; a vote this week to install Thomas Farr on a District Court in North Carolina is in danger because of opposition from Democrats and undecided moderates who are concerned he is hostile to voting rights.  More worrisome for Republicans is getting judicial nominees through the narrowly divided Judiciary Committee, where Flake's opposition could tag them with "unfavorable" recommendations if Democrats stay in opposition.

In an interview, Flake said he is standing firm and will not acquiesce to a nonbinding resolution on protecting the special counsel.  This summer, Flake took a similar stand to demand a vote on congressional authority over Trump's tariffs, but he backed down after a nonbinding measure was considered.

"A resolution in place of a vote?  No.  It's got to be the bill," Flake said after Cornyn hinted that a vote was possible.  "Let's vote."

Cornyn told reporters Tuesday morning that Republicans are willing to hold a vote "if that's what it's going to take" to move more nominees.

When the new Congress convenes in January, Republicans will have a greater margin for error, as the election of Cindy Hyde-Smith in Mississippi last night gives the GOP a 53-47 advantage next term.  But McConnell is opposed to a vote on Mueller, calling it "a solution in search of a problem."

"The president is not going to fire Robert Mueller," McConnell told reporters Tuesday afternoon.  "We have a lot of things to do to try to finish up this year without taking votes on things that are completely irrelevant to outcomes."

Senate Republicans could also measure support for the bill in the caucus and try to show Flake the bill can't pass in a bid to appease him without holding a vote.  The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider more judges on Thursday.

But Flake said nothing short of an actual floor vote will sway him, and it must occur for him to break his opposition to moving forward on judicial nominees.

I think Flake's fears are well founded.  Donald Trump knows the best way to get Republicans to rally around him is to bait the Democrats into an impeachment inquiry.  Firing Mueller would almost certainly do that.  While the House might vote out articles of impeachment on Trump, Democrats would need 19 Republican senators to vote for conviction.  That won't happen unless Mueller has a smoking gun that points irrefutably to Trump masterminding cooperation with the Russians.  If he had it, the information would almost certainly have been leaked to the press by now.

So the prospects are poor for Congress to pass a spending bill, and pretty good that Democrats will initiate an impeachment inquiry if Trump fires Mueller. 

May we be cursed for living in interesting times.