WASHINGTON — The effort on Capitol Hill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller's job is gaining momentum.
In the wake of President Donald Trump's comments this week suggesting he had not ruled out firing Mueller, two pairs of senators on Wednesday announced they had merged bipartisan legislation they introduced separately last August that would protect the special counsel.
Their move comes even as Republican leaders on Capitol Hill continue to indicate they do not see the need for such a bill.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., combined their bill with a measure proposed by Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., to produce the "Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act."
The bill would ensure that only a senior official at the Department of Justice has the authority to fire the special counsel and the reason would have to be provided in writing. The measure would also give the special counsel 10 days to seek judicial review to examine their removal to determine if the dismissal "was for good cause." The legislation would ensure that documents, materials and staff working on the investigation are preserved.
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Under the Justice Department regulations that set up the office of special counsel, Mueller can be fired only by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the special counsel's investigation.
Normally, according to NBC News Justice correspondent Pete Williams, this power rests with the attorney general, but Jeff Sessions has recused himself, so it falls to Rosenstein.
The regulations say a special counsel can be fired "for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies."
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday afternoon that Trump "certainly believes he has the power" to fire Mueller.
But there's no clear answer as to whether the president has that power, and there is apparently no formal opinion from the Justice Department concluding that the president has that authority.
There's also a potential constitutional issue — namely that a president, as chief executive, has the authority to fire any employee in the executive branch. According to this argument, such a constitutional power would override any statute or regulation.
Staff on the Senate Judiciary Committee are planning to review the merged bill to look for constitutional issues and they will decide whether it should move forward in the committee. The chairman of the panel, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, had asked the two pairs of senators to combine their bills, a spokesman for the committee told NBC News on Tuesday.
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Discussions about merging the legislation had been underway for months, Graham and Coons said Tuesday.
Grassley said on Fox Business Network on Tuesday that he had "confidence" in the special counsel and that "it would be suicide for the president to fire Mueller." And Graham warned that getting rid of Mueller or Rosenstein "would be the beginning of the end of his presidency."
Meanwhile, GOP leaders dismissed the possibility of Trump getting rid of Mueller and said legislation to protect the special counsel wasn't necessary.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reiterated Tuesday he hadn't "seen clear indication yet that we have to pass something to keep him from being removed, because I don't think that's going to happen."