Mueller Investigation Puts Senators on the Tightrope

(Bloomberg View) -- A bipartisan bill to secure the Robert Mueller investigation has almost certain majority support in the Senate, as Greg Sargent reports. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley appears to be moving toward considering the bill. Is this, as Sargent proposes, a big test for whether Grassley and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell really mean it when they say that President Donald Trump should allow the investigation to proceed unimpeded?

Well, sort of.

It's one thing to rigidly adhere to a "majority of the majority" rule. But control of the agenda is the central advantage of having a party majority. Party leaders sometimes have to take the heat for suppressing popular legislation in order to spare their caucuses from taking tough votes.

A bill to protect Mueller -- whom Republican-aligned media have been regularly smearing for the last year -- would be a genuinely hard vote for a lot of Republican senators. Their constituents mostly like Trump, and the most politically active of their Republican constituents mistakenly think that Mueller is a partisan monster. Voting for the measure would be difficult, even if they believe the investigation is legitimate. 

It counts, too, that the bill is unlikely to get any consideration in the House, where the Republican majority is larger; even if Speaker Paul Ryan moved it, there's very little chance that supermajorities in each chamber would override a likely Trump veto. Asking his conference to take tough votes for a purely symbolic measure is exactly the kind of thing party leaders aren't supposed to do.

But a vote for protecting the investigation wouldn't just declare the Senate on the side of the rule of law. It would also send a strong signal to Trump that further obstruction of justice would carry a heavy price. However, a bill that passes narrowly in the Senate and then dies in the House might actually backfire. That's especially a problem if McConnell believes many Republican senators agree with the sentiment; they just aren't willing to vote for it unless they absolutely have to. 

This is actually a lot more complicated than it might seem. McConnell has the ability to put anything he wants up for a vote in the Senate, but he can't compel Republicans to vote as he wishes. Even if all he wants is for them to vote their sincere preference.

It's legitimate for McConnell to try to protect his conference from tough votes and to work out the best way to signal to Trump that further obstruction would be damaging. It's not at all legitimate for McConnell to try to protect the president's ability to obstruct justice. And for Democrats: The goal is to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law as best they can; it's not to force Republicans into awkward positions. 

We can expect all politicians to care about political incentives; the system thrives on that. But it's also reasonable to expect them to respect the basic guardrails of the system, and we can and should call them out when they don't. Just don't expect it to always be an easy judgment.

1. Dave Hopkins on why Paul Ryan was a poor fit for the speakership

2. Matthew Green at the Monkey Cage on Ryan's retirement

3. Also at the Monkey Cage: Ian M. Hartshorn and Stacey Philbrick Yadav on religion and diplomacy.

4. David Frum interviews political scientist Sam Rosenfeld about his important new book on polarization.

5. Jack Goldsmith reminds us that critics have repeatedly predicted Trump will try to shut down investigations only to see him back off, and he suggests that what might be happening is just an effort to try the prosecutors in the news media, which might be ugly but isn't a Saturday Night Massacre. Counterargument: Without the panicked reaction from Trump opponents every time the president does it, we might not get red lights from Republican leaders -- and Trump might act after all. 

6. Susan Ferrechio reports on the possibility that Republicans will change Senate procedures to get nominees confirmed more quickly. I'm not convinced that they have 50 votes for it, but I suppose we'll see. Democrats have been foot-dragging, but not as much as they could. Of course, it's possible that Republicans may threaten this kind of mini-nuclear option in order to strike a deal with Democrats. 

8. Fred Kaplan on Trump's choices in Syria.

9. Matt Fuller on Paul Ryan.

10. Philip Klein on Paul Ryan.

11. Jonathan Chait on Paul Ryan.

12. Matt Yglesias on Paul Ryan. Lots of perspectives; few fans. 

13. And my Bloomberg View colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on Trump and thuggish lawyers

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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