Sen. Jeff Flake announced Wednesday that he will not vote to advance any new judicial nominees through the Judiciary Committee, nor will he vote to confirm picks on the Senate floor, until he gets his way on unrelated legislation to prevent the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Mr. Flake made the announcement on the Senate floor minutes after his bid to pass the bill failed.
His threat could block the committee from approving any more judges this year, since the GOP only holds a one-seat majority on the panel.
It’s less catastrophic to approving judges on the Senate floor, where the GOP holds 51 seats. Even losing Mr. Flake, Republicans could still approve judges on a 50-50 vote with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie.
Still, the senator’s move was a major escalation in the battle over Mr. Mueller, who is investigating the 2016 election, Russian interference and Trump campaign figures’ behavior.
Mr. Flake and Sen. Chris Coons tried to get the Senate to pass a bill that would have prevented Mr. Mueller from being fired without good cause.
They said their bill is of critical importance now that Mr. Trump has ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and named an acting attorney general who some fear is looking to curtail the probe.
“The president now has this investigation in his sights, and we all know it,” Mr. Flake said.
He tried to speed the protection bill through the Senate, but fellow Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, blocked that.
“I don’t think any legislation’s necessary,” Mr. McConnell had told reporters hours earlier.
He said he agrees the Mueller probe should be allowed to finish, but said he has not seen any evidence that Mr. Trump will sink the investigation.
Still, Mr. Flake’s threat to action on judicial nominees strikes at Mr. McConnell’s heart. He has said his top priority as the GOP’s Senate leader is confirming the president’s judicial picks.