Senate

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 Mueller’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 Cornyn (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 Thune (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 McConnell (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 Lankford (R-Oka.) and Amy Klobuchar (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 Burr (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 Blunt (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 Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have introduced a measure that would hit automatic penalties on future election meddling, while Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Menendez (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 Crapo (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 Risch (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.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bob Menendez Chris Van Hollen Election Security James Lankford Jim Risch John Cornyn John Thune Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mike Crapo Mitch McConnell Mueller investigation Mueller report Richard Burr Robert Mueller Roy Blunt

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