WASHINGTON—The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday his panel would take up a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being dismissed without cause, the first major congressional action designed to protecting the integrity of the criminal investigation into Russian activity during the 2016 election.
A spokesman for Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said that he would put a bipartisan bill that would prevent Mr. Mueller from being dismissed without cause on the committee’s agenda.
Mr. Grassley will seek to work with the panel’s top Democrat to use expedited congressional procedures designed to circumvent the normal committee rules, and to bring the measure up for debate and amendment this week at the committee’s Thursday meeting. A vote could come next week.
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Mr. Grassley’s move was unexpected and comes as President Donald Trump has voiced increasing anger at the direction of the investigation. Earlier this week, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents searched the office, home and hotel room of Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen and seized records including those related to a payment to a former adult-film actress.
Members of Congress in both parties have grown increasingly alarmed that Mr. Trump would take action against Mr. Mueller, whose investigation he has repeatedly called a “witch hunt,” asserting there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia during the 2016 race. Russia has denied meddling in the election.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this week that Mr. Trump “certainly believes he has the power” to fire Mr. Mueller directly. Mr. Mueller is examining Russia’s alleged meddling into the 2016 presidential campaign and whether associates of Mr. Trump colluded with Moscow.
Committee rules require Mr. Grassley to get consent of the top Democrat on the panel to add the bill to the committee’s business meeting at such a late date.
A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein said her office hasn’t seen the text of the proposal. The California Democrat has previously expressed support for Mr. Mueller’s work and his ability to continue his investigation unimpeded.
Mr. Grassley said it isn’t clear whether he will support the measure but he is open to having the committee consider and vote on it. The measure was co-authored by two Republicans and is likely to draw at least some Republican support on the panel.
The bill would propose to enshrine into law a Justice Department regulation that a special counsel cannot be fired without cause. In addition, it would give a special counsel a 10-day window to challenge his or her firing in federal court. It would also ensure that any work product from a special counsel investigation couldn’t be destroyed until the courts ruled on the matter.
Still, enacting such a bill would be an uphill battle. It would need the buy-in of Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, who have encouraged Mr. Trump not to fire Mr. Mueller but have been reluctant to pass any legislation. If Mr. Trump exercised his prerogative to veto such a bill, it would need supermajorities in both the Republican-controlled House and Senate to pass.
“I haven’t seen a clear indication yet that we needed to pass something to keep him from being removed because I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday. Mr. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Mueller “should be allowed to finish his job.”
Asked if the White House would support or oppose a measure protecting the Mueller probe, Ms. Sanders said Wednesday, “We don’t have an administrative policy on that right now.”
Members at Thursday’s meeting will have the chance to amend the bill, and it could be passed by the committee as soon as next week with the consent of Democrats. The proposal was authored by two Democrats and two Republicans—Cory Booker (D., N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.), Chris Coons (D., Del.), and Thom Tillis (R., N.C.).
The bill “will install a needed check and ensure that Special Counsel Mueller and his team—and any future special counsels—are able to follow the facts and the law wherever they lead,” Mr. Booker said.
Before 1999, a Watergate-era law allowed the attorney general, in conjunction with a special three-judge panel, to appoint an independent counsel to investigate any wrongdoing by executive branch officials. The law was allowed to expire in 1999 after both conservative and liberal critics grew to believe the office was too powerful and operated with too little oversight.
Instead, the Justice Department created procedures to allow the appointment of special prosecutors on certain matters, but they ultimately answer to and can be overruled by the attorney general and have less autonomy than the independent counsels had.
The legal effort being taken up in the Senate would give special counsels new protections while avoiding some of the concerns about independent counsels.
Write to Byron Tau at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he saw no indication special counsel Robert Mueller would be removed. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that he made the comment on Wednesday. (April 11, 2018)