Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in Washington in 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Opinion writer

Republicans deserve the avalanche of criticism they have gotten for refusing to check the executive branch, whether it be on foreign emoluments, the Russia probe or on the confirmations of unfit nominees. When members do their job — as did a group of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — they deserve to be singled out for praise. Take note, then, and relay your appreciation (by emails, phone calls or in-person meetings) to Republican Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), and especially the committee’s chairman, Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), who brought up the bill in committee despite warnings from the majority leader that the bill would not get a floor vote.

Republicans for the Rule of Law, which has been airing ads in defense of Mueller, put out a statement showing its appreciation. “The passage of the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act is an important step toward protecting the probity of Robert Mueller’s investigation,” its written statement said. “To uphold the rule of law, it is crucial the special counsel continue his work free from political interference. We commend the Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), for reporting out this bipartisan legislation with the support of four Republican senators.” It then warned Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “to act promptly to bring the legislation to the Senate floor.” The statement concluded, “The Senate should have no higher priority than upholding and strengthening the rule of law.”

Seven committee Republicans, including Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) voted against the measure. Without bothering to have a full discussion of expert legal opinions, several had decided the bill was unconstitutional. It’s not clear which part of the bill they think failed constitutional muster: Affirming the Justice Department regulation a special prosecutor can only be fired for cause? Providing an opportunity for court action if the special counsel is fired or for preservation of the investigation’s materials and staff? Mandating a report from the attorney general to Congress when a special counsel is hired or fired or his duties otherwise end? Rather than vaguely gesturing toward Article II powers, they should spell out which parts they think are constitutional and at least support those parts.

Sasse offered a meaningless substitution:

If Robert Mueller is removed from the position of Special Counsel for the United States, or if the investigation of the efforts of the government of Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election is narrowed or terminated without the approval of the Special Counsel, Congress will use its lawful authorities under the Constitution of the United States — A) to ensure that the investigation is completed; and B) to hold the executive branch accountable.

I have no idea what that means. That’s the point — offer rhetorical fluff without actually standing up to Trump.

If Sasse wants to do something that is entirely within the purview of the legislative branch, he could introduce a simple resolution: “Firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein without cause would constitute grounds for opening impeachment hearings.” A resolution could also specify: “In the event the special counsel and/or deputy general counsel is fired without cause, Congress shall subpoena all documents relating to the investigation.” If Sasse and others are so concerned about a credible independent investigation, why not introduce a resolution to set up a select committee or an independent commission? We suspect they’d rather not undertake any of these.

Republicans opposing protections for the special counsel plainly don’t want to get on the president’s bad side — or the bad side of his rabid base. But if Trump isn’t going to fire Mueller or Rosenstein anyway, why would Trump or his voters mind? It’s long past the time for tweets and empty gestures. Republicans who do not act in defense of the special counsel and the deputy attorney general should be held accountable by voters, who are entitled to have representatives whose courage exceeds their ambition, and whose fidelity to the rule of law outweighs political calculations.