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To protect Mueller, GOP senator announces a hardball tactic

To protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, Jeff Flake launched a new gambit that got Mitch McConnell's attention. It might even work.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. 

With Donald Trump having appointed an acting attorney general who's staunchly opposed to Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia scandal, there's renewed interest on Capitol Hill in bipartisan legislation to protect the special counsel and his probe. The measure easily cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, and has sat on a shelf gathering dust ever since.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has refused to allow a vote on the bipartisan proposal -- he's dismissed it as "unnecessary" -- and the Republican leader blocked a similar effort on the floor again yesterday. That's when Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) did something interesting.

Flake said on Wednesday that he would oppose all judicial nominees coming through the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate floor until Majority Leader Mitch McConnell puts a bill protecting special counsel Robert Mueller up for a vote."I have informed the majority leader I will not vote to advance any of the 21 judicial nominees pending in the Judiciary Committee or vote to confirm the 32 judges awaiting confirmation on the Senate floor until ... [the bill] is brought to the full Senate for a vote," Flake said in a speech at the Capitol.

As Rachel explained on the show last night, Flake's gambit puts at risk 21 Trump judicial nominees currently pending in the Judiciary Committee -- where Republicans have an 11-to-10 majority -- and an additional 32 judicial nominees awaiting confirmation on the Senate floor.

There are very few things Mitch McConnell and his leadership team care more about than confirming the White House's far-right judges, which means Flake no doubt captured the GOP leadership's attention yesterday afternoon.

The question, of course, is what happens now.

McConnell has a few options. He could, for example, simply wait until January: Flake is retiring; his congressional career will wrap up in a couple of months; and an even-larger Senate GOP majority can get right back to work stacking the federal judiciary in the new Congress. With Democrats reclaiming the House majority, Republicans in the upper chamber won't have that much to do anyway.

The Senate majority leader could also placate Flake in an inconsequential way. The Arizonan didn't threaten to block judicial nominees until the Mueller bill became law, but rather, until it received a vote in the Senate. It's not hard to imagine McConnell meeting Flake's demand, holding a vote, and letting it die soon after in the House.

Or McConnell could simply help the bill become law. This strikes me as the least likely of the options.

If Flake's gambit sounds at all familiar, it's because he did something similar in July, announcing plans to block judicial nominees until his concerns over Donald Trump's trade tariffs were addressed. The Arizonan was placated rather easily -- the Senate passed a largely symbolic resolution -- and Flake folded soon after.

Will he be a little more assertive playing hardball this time around? Watch this space.