Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday that Democrats could tie a measure to protect special counsel Robert Mueller to must-pass legislation should acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker not recuse himself from oversight of Mueller's Russia probe.
"We Democrats, House and Senate, will attempt to add to must-pass legislation, in this case the spending bill, legislation that would prevent Mr. Whitaker from interfering with the Mueller investigation" should Whitaker not recuse, Schumer told CNN's Jake Tapper on CNN's "State of the Union."
Schumer's comments came as he announced that he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, along with other key Democrats, were sending a letter to Lee Lofthus, the top ethics officer at the Justice Department, asking for Lofthus to let them know if he had advised Whitaker to recuse himself from oversight of the Mueller investigation.
Schumer said Whitaker's appointment "should concern every American" and warned of a crisis should Whitaker not step aside from the special counsel investigation.
"If he stays there, he will create a constitutional crisis by inhibiting Mueller or firing Mueller," Schumer said.
But when asked if Democrats would go as far as threatening a government shutdown unless Congress passed a measure to protect Mueller, Schumer said he expected enough bipartisan support to avoid that possibility.
"If that doesn't happen, we'll see what happens down the road," Schumer said.
Bipartisan legislation has been brought forward in the past to protect Mueller's investigation, but when the issue cropped up last April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would not bring such legislation to the floor for a vote.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who co-sponsored a bill to protect Mueller, said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that he was confident Whitaker would not quash the investigation.
"I don't think he has to recuse himself," Graham said. "I am confident the Mueller investigation will be allowed to come to a good, solid conclusion, that there will be no political influence put on Mr. Mueller by Mr. Whitaker to do anything other than Mr. Mueller's job."
Meanwhile, Colorado GOP Sen. Cory Gardner said Sunday he did not think the Mueller probe was in danger and waved off the need for a bill to protect it.
"Why protect something that's actually continuing" Gardner said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Schumer's renewed push following Sessions' ouster and Whitaker's temporary appointment could put him and McConnell on course to clash over the independence of the Mueller investigation. It comes as House Democrats, newly empowered after the midterm elections, consider their next steps.
New York Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, who is expected to lead the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN last week that Democrats could make a measure protecting Mueller a "condition of passage" for government funding in December.
Nadler said Sunday on "State of the Union" that Whitaker would be the first witness the panel would call next year to question him about his criticisms of the Russian investigation.