Senate Democrats forged ahead today with a plan to extend by two years the term of FBI Director Robert Mueller III, even as Republicans said they have lingering doubts about whether the plan is constitutional.
The disagreement overshadowed the wide, bipartisan support that Mueller enjoys among lawmakers. Senators are splitting not on whether Mueller should continue to serve, but on the best way to create an exception to the federal law limiting FBI directors to 10 years of service.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is pushing legislation that would explicitly extend the term of the incumbent for two years. But at a hearing this month, University of Virginia School of Law Professor John Harrison said such a bill would amount to an unconstitutional encroachment on the president’s appointment power.
Some Republicans support a two-step plan consisting of legislation to create a two-year term followed by Mueller’s nomination and Senate confirmation. Otherwise, they said at a Judiciary Committee meeting today, Mueller’s extension — and all his official actions — could be challenged in court.
“When you have a chance of correcting what may be a constitutional error, we ought to correct it,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Leahy said the constitutional doubts are exaggerated, and other Democrats said the problem with the two-step proposal is that even one lone Republican could stall the process. They used today’s debate to highlight delays facing Justice Department nominees James Cole and Lisa Monaco.
“The reason there’s skepticism on our side is that there are so many other nominees, who are well qualified and have no controversy related to them, who have been held up,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Leahy’s legislation won the committee’s backing on an 11-7 vote, sending the bill to the full Senate.