Democrats will refuse to support spending bill without protections for Mueller probe
Democrats are looking to leverage their support for a spending bill to keep the government fully operating by tying their support to a measure that would guarantee special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation won't be shut down.
That sets up a potentially contentious several weeks as Democrats continue to pressure Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to recuse himself from the Mueller inquiry. Mr. Whitaker, who was publicly critical of the investigation before coming to the Justice Department, has so far signaled he will not step aside.
The concerns over the Mueller probe join broader questions about whether Mr. Whitaker, whom President Trump appointed after ousting Jeff Sessions on Nov. 7, can serve without Senate confirmation. Democrats in recent days have called for Mr. Whitaker to testify before Congress, sought a Justice Department inspector general’s investigation into his communications with the White House, and asked a federal judge to bar him from serving.
Democrats will gain some power when they take control of the House in January, but they say their most immediate leverage comes from Congress’s need to pass spending bills by Dec. 8. Republicans in both chambers say they want to avoid a partial government shutdown, and they need Democratic votes to do so.
Spending bills need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate, where Republicans currently hold 51 seats. The GOP tentatively gained two seats in the recent election, but the newcomers won’t take office until January.
If Congress and the White House cannot agree on a spending bill by Dec. 8, many agencies—including such high-profile entities as the Department of Homeland Security—will shut down. Democrats’ demand to protect the special counsel is just one piece of a complex fight over the spending package; Mr. Trump, for example, has said it must include $5 billion more for construction of a wall along the border with Mexico.
Currently, about 40% of the government is funded through the end of 2019. The two major sticking points - Trump's border wall and food stamp spending - will probably not be resolved before the December 8 deadline.
But the issue of Whitaker serving as AG is potentially more important. Does the president have the right to pick his own cabinet heads? While Whitaker's job is probably temporary, there is nothing set in stone that says Trump has to name the next guy in line. Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein has already shown his partisan bias against the president, and the president shouldn't have to slit his own throat by naming him temporary AG.
Democrats are taking over in January and probably wouldn't mind a partial government shut down if it meant they could embarrass Trump. Trump, on the other hand, has hinted that he wouldn't mind a shutdown if he doesn't get funding for his wall. The potential is there for a shutdown of several agencies, including Homeland Security, at least until January.