The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday that would protect from arbitrary dismissal the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
The measure, backed by 10 Democrats and four Republicans, would codify Justice Department regulations that the special counsel can only be fired by the attorney general or a designee for "misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause."
The proposal would give the special counsel 10 days to challenge a dismissal in court. If a court determines the firing was not for "good cause," the special counsel would be reinstated. The measure would also require the Justice Department to notify Congress when a special counsel is appointed and to report the findings of an investigation.
While marking a strong show of support for Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is under frequent attack by President Donald Trump and some Republicans, the bill is unlikely to become law in the face of Republican opposition.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that Trump will not fire Mueller and that there was no need to bring the measure to the Senate floor for a vote. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also opposed the idea.
The legislation was introduced by four Senators earlier this month after Trump's sharp criticism of an FBI raid on his personal lawyer's home and office rekindled fears that Trump may fire Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who supervises Mueller.
Mueller is heading the federal investigation into Russia's electoral interference and possible collusion with the Trump presidential campaign. Trump has said there was no collusion and repeatedly denounced the probe as a "witch hunt."
Despite his harsh criticism of the Special Counsel and the Justice Department, Trump has dismissed reports that he's privately talked about firing Mueller. He told the cable show Fox and Friends on Thursday that he'll "try and stay away" from the Justice Department, but "at some point, I won't."
Supporters of the Special Counsel bill hailed it as a victory for the rule of law and said it would send a message that the president doesn't have unfettered authority.
"This is about the independence of the Department of Justice and our respect for the rule of law," said Democratic Senator Chris Coons, one of the bill's four co-sponsors.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, another co-sponsor of the bill, added that "the public will be well served" by the legislation.
"Special counsels must act within boundaries, but they must also be protected," Graham said. "Our bill allows judicial review of any decision to terminate a special counsel to make sure it's done for the reasons cited in the regulation rather than political motivation."
But other Republicans said the bill constrains the president's constitutional powers.
Republican Senator Michael Lee said the Constitution gives the president "ultimate authority over all purely executive functions."
"Therefore, any attempt to restrict that authority vested exclusively in the president is unconstitutional," Lee said.
The Office of the Special Counsel was created in the late 1990s after the statute governing the former Office of the Independent Counsel was allowed to lapse.
Under Justice Department regulations, the attorney general or an acting attorney general appoints a special counsel to investigate cases that pose a conflict of interest for the department.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and Trump fired the FBI director last year, Rosenstein appointed Mueller to lead the probe.