House Democrats are moving Friday to force Republicans to hold a hearing on a measure that would prevent President Donald Trump from unilaterally removing special counsel Robert Mueller.
Three Democrats on the powerful Judiciary Committee are invoking an obscure House rule that permits a handful of lawmakers to call for a “special meeting” on any bill. If the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), declines to approve the meeting within three days, the 40 members of the panel — 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats — have an opportunity to overrule him and hold the meeting anyway.
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“We do not take these actions lightly, but believe that we are left with no other choice given the circumstances,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, in a letter also signed by Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.)
It’s a longshot gambit — the Republican-controlled committee is virtually guaranteed to support Goodlatte. But it’s the latest effort by Democrats to spotlight inaction on measures they describe as increasingly urgent as Trump has more aggressively challenged the validity of Mueller’s probe.
Goodlatte aides were not immediately available for comment.
Mueller’s probe of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians has become increasingly perilous to Trump’s inner circle and has dogged the president as he’s attempted to forge closer ties to Putin — even against the advice of his senior national security and intelligence teams. Trump has decried the probe as a politically driven “witch hunt.”
But his attacks reached new and unsettling heights on Monday when Trump denigrated Mueller alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. The display prompted bipartisan derision — one House Republican even described Trump as being manipulated by the Russian president. But that bipartisanship has stalled when it comes to any concrete actions.
The Judiciary Committee is the forum for much of the conflict in the GOP-controlled House because it oversees the FBI and Justice Department. Republicans leading the committee have poured their energy into investigating whether the origins of the Mueller probe were rooted in anti-Trump bias expressed by a handful of FBI agents in recently unearthed text messages. So far, internal reviews have found no evidence that the probe was tainted by bias.
Judiciary Committee Democrats, meanwhile, have become emboldened in recent weeks to use the few procedural tactics at their disposal to disrupt committee Republicans’ drive to undercut the Trump-Russia investigators. They were buoyed earlier this month when, during an intense grilling of FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, they used the rules and procedural motions repeatedly to stall the hearing and disrupt GOP lines of questioning.
Republicans have beaten back these Democratic procedural maneuvers and contended that Democrats are overlooking problems in the upper ranks of the FBI and Justice Department in order to take political shots at Trump.
In their latest effort, Democrats are planning to invoke a rule that has, according to the Congressional Research Service, never been successfully invoked in the House. A similar provision in the Senate rules came into play during an ill-fated effort to confirm former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as ambassador to Mexico in 1997. At the time, then Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Jesse Helms refused to hold a hearing on Weld’s nomination and fellow Republicans attempted to convene one without him.
Under the rule, first adopted in 1931, the Democrats have called for a “special meeting” to consider a bill that would prevent Trump from firing Mueller without “good cause.” Any special counsel removed under this provision could challenge the effort in court. The measure has drawn bipartisan support, with at least seven House Republicans backing it.
If Goodlatte ignores their request for three days, the Democrats may solicit the support of other committee members to sidestep him and hold a meeting anyway. That would require at least four Republicans to sign on to their effort, an unlikely prospect on a committee riven by intense partisanship.