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) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 CornynThe Hill's Campaign Report: Runoff elections in Texas, Alabama set for Tuesday Overnight Health Care: White House goes public with attacks on Fauci | Newsom orders California to shut down indoor activities, all bar operations | Federal judges block abortion ban laws in Tennessee, Georgia Trump administration extends support for Texas COVID-19 testing sites 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 ThuneGOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate 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 McConnellMcConnell in talks with Mnuchin on next phase of coronavirus relief Pelosi: 'We shouldn't even be thinking' about reopening schools without federal aid The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - All eyes on Florida as daily COVID-19 cases hit 15K 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 LankfordSenate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Tulsa to resume search for race massacre mass graves next week GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday MORE (R-Oka.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response State election officials warn budget cuts could lead to November chaos Biden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street 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 BurrKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Biden campaign adds staff in three battleground states Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress? 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 BluntHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Advocacy groups pressure Senate to reconvene and boost election funding GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle 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 RubioChina sanctions Cruz, Rubio, others over Xinjiang legislation The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - All eyes on Florida as daily COVID-19 cases hit 15K GOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' MORE (R-Fla.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenMaryland GOP governor who's criticized Trump says he's considering 2024 presidential run Communist China won't change — until its people and the West demand it Senate passes sanctions bill targeting China over Hong Kong law MORE (D-Md.) have introduced a measure that would hit automatic penalties on future election meddling, while Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - All eyes on Florida as daily COVID-19 cases hit 15K Democrats see immigration reform as topping Biden agenda Graham says he will call Mueller to testify before Senate panel about Russia probe MORE (R-S.C.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBottom line Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski 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 CrapoSenate panel to vote on controversial Trump Fed pick Shelton GOP skeptical of polling on Trump GOP: Trump needs a new plan 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 RischSenators blast Turkey's move to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque Progressive group backs Democratic challenger to Sen. Risch Republicans start bracing for shutdown fight in run-up to election 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.”