Mueller fails to break stalemate on election meddling crackdown

Mueller fails to break stalemate on election meddling crackdown
© Greg Nash

Efforts to combat election meddling in the aftermath of the Mueller report are running into steep political headwinds on Capitol Hill.

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE’s sprawling 448-page report detailed Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election and sparked fresh calls for tougher sanctions against Moscow or new election security measures.

But any initial boost of momentum is now hitting roadblocks with top GOP senators and stalemated partisan standoffs, underscoring the uphill battle for a legislative push leading up to the 2020 election.

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“I think there’s a lot we can do without passing new legislation,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynFalling investment revives attacks against Trump's tax cuts GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump says Dems shouldn't hold public hearings MORE (R-Texas), a member of GOP leadership and the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The House has taken more of an attitude of: Don’t let a crisis go to waste.”

Asked about the chances of passing sanctions or election security, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report: Public impeachment hearings to begin next week MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said, “We’ll see.”

“Some of our members are talking about more sanctions. We’ll see where it goes,” he said. “On the election security stuff … I think we feel confident based on the fact that our elections in this country are basically local, that …  it ensures a certain amount of accountability.”

Lawmakers have raised concerns about Russia’s election meddling for years, but Mueller’s findings put the spotlight on what, if any, steps Congress will take in response.

The special counsel dedicated roughly 200 pages of his report to detailing Russia’s hacking attempts, social media activities and contacts with the Trump campaign, while noting that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.”

“The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” Mueller wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week MORE (R-Ky.) hasn’t weighed in on what action Congress might take, but signaled on Tuesday that he thought it was time for lawmakers to move on from the two-year investigation.

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“Having just gotten back from a couple weeks at home, I thought it was interesting that I didn’t get a single question about the Mueller report. Most Americans think it’s over. Time to move on,” McConnell said.

Part of the political hang-up on passing election security legislation, GOP senators say, is that the House passed a sweeping election and ethics reform bill, known as H.R. 1, that includes requirements for states to use paper ballots, sets up early voting requirements and makes Election Day a holiday for federal employees.

The bill passed the House in March but it’s dead on arrival in the Senate, where McConnell has blasted it as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” and pledged that he will not bring it to the floor for a vote.

“Nothing’s going to pass unless it’s bipartisan. And the way that’s been approached, it’s been approached as a partisan matter,” Cornyn said, referring to the House bill.

Sens. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordOn The Money: Lawmakers dismiss fears of another shutdown | Income for poorest Americans fell faster than thought | Net employment holds steady in September | Groups press Senate on retirement bill Lawmakers dismiss fresh fears of another government shutdown Hillicon Valley: Twitter to refuse all political ads | Trump camp blasts 'very dumb' decision | Ocasio-Cortez hails move | Zuckerberg doubles down on Facebook's ad policies | GOP senator blocks sweeping election reform bill MORE (R-Oka.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDemocrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal Republicans, Democrats brace for first public testimony in impeachment inquiry Klobuchar: A woman with Buttigieg's experience would not be on presidential debate stage MORE (D-Minn.) have offered legislation, known as the Secure Elections Act, aimed at protecting election systems from cyberattacks.

Lankford said he’s waiting for feedback on the bill as they continue to draft potential changes to help it get through Congress. He noted that White House officials had warned during the previous Congress that they could oppose the bill if it didn’t “honor federalism” by the time it reached the Senate floor.

Lankford said that he and Klobuchar haven’t received any White House feedback this year.

“The Mueller investigation identified where the Russians were clearly coming after us,” Lankford said. “So I think the Mueller investigation reiterates again why this is important to be able to stay on our guard.” 

But, he added, that the House election bill made it more difficult to win over GOP support and negotiate an agreement.

“The election security measures they have in H.R. 1 are not really what’s needed,” he said. “That’s actually made it more difficult because the House has laid down their marker to say if we’re going to work on elections, we want to work on how we’re going to take over elections.”

Lankford has some powerful allies backing his legislation.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP senator wants to know whistleblower identity if there's an impeachment trial Senate Intel chair doesn't want whistleblower's identity disclosed Graham wants Senate panel to probe State Department over Bidens MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the Secure Elections Act would be a good starting point for lawmakers as they weigh legislation in response to Mueller’s findings. 

“We identified and came up with what we thought was an appropriate response, with the elections security act,” he said. “I think we need to get that in place.”

But he could face a significant hurdle in getting a bill to the floor. 

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden MORE (R-Mo.) — the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over Lankford’s bill — told reporters this week that Mueller’s findings didn’t change his belief that additional legislation isn’t needed from Congress.

Bipartisan groups of senators are working on moving sanctions legislation to slap additional financial penalties on Moscow over its election meddling.

Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump Paul's demand to out whistleblower rankles GOP colleagues MORE (R-Fla.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOn The Money: Retirement savings bill blocked in Senate after fight over amendments | Stopgap bill may set up December spending fight | Hardwood industry pleads for relief from Trump trade war GAO reviewing Trump hold on Ukraine military aid Democrats unveil proposal for 'millionaires surtax' MORE (D-Md.) have introduced a measure that would hit automatic penalties on future election meddling, while Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamImpeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Graham on the impeachment inquiry: 'I made my mind up. There's nothing there' Rand Paul says Trump has 'every right' to withhold Ukraine aid over corruption MORE (R-S.C.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezTrump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward Isolationism creeps back over America, as the president looks out for himself MORE (D-N.J.) have introduced a wide-ranging sanctions bill that targets Russia with new sanctions over its 2016 election interference and activities in Ukraine and Syria. 

Rubio was less optimistic for the prospects of his own bill, saying they were trying to “get some traction on that” but “we haven’t been very successful so far. We’re trying to get some interest in it again.” 

Though the Senate passed Russia sanctions in 2017 over the objections of the Trump administration, follow-up legislation has run into congressional inertia. McConnell said last year that he had asked for chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations and Banking committees to come up with suggestions for potential legislation. 

Asked about moving sanctions legislation through the Banking Committee, Chairman Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoEleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid GOP requests update on criminal referrals prompted by 2018 Kavanaugh probe Nearing finish line, fight for cannabis banking bill shifts to the Senate MORE (R-Idaho) noted that he hadn't seen a bill that didn't duplicate the 2017 law. 

"Perhaps some new proposal can come up that can change that," he said. "But most of the proposals that I've seen are simply duplicative." 

Graham, on Tuesday, said he thought the Mueller report had provided them with a “moment,” adding that he was working with Sen. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTrump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Graham: Schiff comment on inquiry findings 'full of crap' Senate Republicans struggle to coalesce behind an impeachment strategy MORE (R-Idaho), who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, to try to come up with a bill.

“I think it’s a moment,” he said. “I hope we can find some common ground and move because the Mueller report’s big takeaway for me was how deep and how involved the Russians were.”