Standoff with Flake over Mueller bill leads GOP to cancel vote on judges
PHOENIX — Due to a standoff between Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and GOP leaders over legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller, the Senate Judiciary Committee canceled a Thursday vote on more than 20 federal judge nominations.
Flake, who is retiring and will be replaced by Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, has said he won’t vote for any judges until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell holds a Senate floor vote on the special counsel bill.
Without Flake’s support, the Judiciary panel, which holds an 11-10 Republican majority, does not have enough votes to advance nominees.
Flake made his pledge after Trump pushed out Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month and temporarily replaced him with a loyalist, Matt Whitaker, who has criticized Mueller’s Russia investigation. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Russian ties to President Donald Trump’s Republican campaign.
Special Counsel Mueller must be allowed to finish his investigation. Tomorrow, Sen. @ChrisCoons and I will again call for unanimous consent to bring S. 2644, which will protect the Special Counsel, to the Senate floor for a vote. https://t.co/HgPMo6Iu6X
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) November 27, 2018
Confirming more judges before the end of the year is a top priority for McConnell, but he hasn’t budged in his opposition to the special counsel bill, which he says is unnecessary.
On Tuesday, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said Republicans were counting how many votes they had on the special counsel bill – often a sign that legislation will be voted on soon. But McConnell said hours later that the bill is a “solution in search of a problem” because Trump is not going to act against Mueller.
Despite some GOP support, it is not clear that the special counsel measure could gain 60 votes in the Senate, and even less clear that Trump would sign a bill that contained the legislation. Democrats have said they will push for it to be added to a year-end spending bill.
Flake has been an outspoken critic of Trump, especially concerning his characterization of Mueller’s probe as a “witch hunt.”
Trump tweeted earlier this month that he believes Flake’s goal isn’t to protect Mueller, but rather “protect his future after being unelectable in Arizona for the ‘crime’ of doing a terrible job! A weak and ineffective guy!”
After months of speculation that Flake may challenge Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020, he backed away from the idea last week.
“I think that the future of the party is with people with an optimistic vision moving ahead. I don’t think that will be me,” Flake said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.