GOP senators divided over approach to election security

GOP senators divided over approach to election security
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A renewed push to pass election security legislation ahead of the 2020 vote is putting a spotlight on divisions among key Republicans.

GOP senators say they want to protect U.S. election infrastructure from a repeat of Russia’s 2016 meddling, but they are deeply split over how far the federal government should go to try to secure the ballot box and what, if any, new legislation that requires from Congress.

On one side of the divide are Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWhite House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team Hypocrisy is the currency of the realm for GOP in the age of Trump Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown MORE (R-S.C.) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrJuan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump Hillicon Valley: Apple, Barr clash over Pensacola shooter's phone | Senate bill would boost Huawei alternatives | DHS orders agencies to fix Microsoft vulnerability | Chrome to phase out tracking cookies Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech MORE (R-N.C.), who have backed passing additional legislation. On the other side are powerful figures including Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' Romney pledges 'open mind' ahead of impeachment trial McConnell proposes compressed schedule for impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.) and Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial Biden calls for revoking key online legal protection GOP threatens to weaponize impeachment witnesses amid standoff MORE (R-Mo.), who have signaled election security bills are going nowhere anytime soon in the Senate.

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Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate to vote on Trump's Canada, Mexico trade deal Thursday Senate braces for Trump impeachment trial Republicans face internal brawl over impeachment witnesses MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 GOP senator, argued that while Republicans support secure elections, most of the caucus believes the issue has been handled by previous bills and state action.

“I think it would depend entirely on the bills and what they purport to do but I think most of our members think that that issue is being adequately addressed,” he said, when asked about members of the caucus who support additional legislation.

But the divisions have spilled over into the Senate committees with jurisdiction over the issue, where the Rules Committee and Judiciary Committee chairmen have taken different tracks on election-related legislation.

Blunt, who is also a member of GOP leadership, told The Hill that he did not “have anything new” on this topic. He previouslytold members of his committee that he would not hold votes on election security bills because McConnell “is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion.”

Graham, by comparison, co-sponsored legislation approved by the Senate earlier this year that would block individuals who meddled in elections from entering the United States, and he supports passing additional legislation.

“I think there’s some other things that we can do. The two that we did are good starts, but there are other things,” Graham told The Hill.

Graham’s committee also passed legislation that would make it easier to prosecute someone who hacks part of an election system, but it is unclear if it will get a floor vote. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharNew York Times editor: Warren, Klobuchar endorsement reflects 'extremely divided' Democratic Party Biden leads Democratic primary field in Iowa: poll Bloomberg says he would vote to convict Trump if he were a senator MORE (D-Minn.) says he’s also agreed to hold a hearing on the Honest Ads Act, which would require public disclosure of who pays for internet and social media ads.

The inaction in the Senate is at odds with warnings from some Trump administration officials including FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said earlier this year that Russia was “upping their game” when it comes to meddling and that the FBI is “very much viewing 2018 as just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE’s remarks last week that he was open to accepting information on a rival candidate from a foreign source was seen by Democrats as an invitation for foreign actors to interfere in the election. Members of both parties have criticized Trump’s remarks, arguing the FBI should be told of an offer of “dirt” from a foreign source.

But Republicans blocked legislation from Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Apple, Barr clash over Pensacola shooter's phone | Senate bill would boost Huawei alternatives | DHS orders agencies to fix Microsoft vulnerability | Chrome to phase out tracking cookies Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Sen. Warner calls on State Department to take measures to protect against cyberattacks MORE (D-Va.) that would have required campaigns to report attempts by foreign nationals to donate or coordinate with them, a move that earned them praise from Trump for fighting “obstructionist Democrats.”

Trump is rankled by any suggestion that his 2016 election victory was tainted. Lawmakers have warned that the president equates talking about needing to secure elections with questioning his 2016 win—a difficult dynamic for Republicans if they talk up taking steps to secure the 2020 elections.

Thune said he thought “a lot of the discussion” around election security “is designed to attack the president.”

McConnell has been tightlipped about his own views, though opponents blame him for holding up election security legislation in the previous Congress.

Pressed during an interview with Fox News’s Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamBill Kristol on McSally calling CNN reporter a liberal hack: 'I guess I'm liberal' McSally dismisses calls to apologize to CNN's Raju for 'liberal hack' comment: 'Called it like it is' State Department cancels two classified congressional briefings on Iran, embassy security MORE last week, McConnell argued that Democrats were trying to weaponize the issue.

“I’m open to considering legislation, but it has to be directed in a way that doesn’t undermine state and local control of elections. The Democrats ... would like to nationalize everything. They want the federal government to take over broad swaths of the election process because they think that would somehow benefit them,” McConnell said.

GOP proponents of passing new election security legislation are preparing another push on the Secure Elections Act, which was yanked in the last Congress amid pushback from the White House and members of the Senate Republican caucus.

This bill garnered bipartisan support during the last Congress and would require all jurisdictions to perform post-election audits to verify results. This would involve checking paper ballots or paper records of votes against what the voting machines recorded to ensure the vote count is accurate.

Graham and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMcConnell proposes compressed schedule for impeachment trial GOP can beat Democrats after impeachment — but it needs to do this one thing Juan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump MORE (R-Maine), two of the bill’s cosponsors last year, signaled they are open to backing the forthcoming version. Meanwhile, Burr told reporters in the wake of Mueller’s report that the Secure Elections Act would be a good starting point.

“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.”

Asked about election security legislation on Thursday Burr said he was “focused on the committee getting its report out,” referencing the Intelligence Committee's ongoing investigation into Russian election interference in 2016.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordDemocrats sound election security alarm after Russia's Burisma hack Enes Kanter sees political stardom — after NBA and WWE 2020 predictions: Trump will lose — if not in the Senate, then with the voters MORE (R-Okla.) who worked on the Secure Elections Act with Klobuchar, says he is waiting for her to sign off on the new version. When it is reintroduced, it will be sent to the Rules Committee. GOP leaders could stall the bill and Lankford said he is unsure of the reception it will get from Blunt's committee.

“I’m not going to try to predict what he’s going to do,” Lankford said. “He makes his own choice there. But our job is to get it ready.”

McConnell’s allies argue that Congress has already done plenty since 2016 to push back against election interference including passing sweeping Russia sanctions legislation and providing $380 million last year to the Election Assistance Commission.

They also point to the relatively interference-free 2018 midterms to make their case that the Trump administration is doing a better job at stopping election meddling with the resources it already has, diminishing the need for more congressional action.

“[We’ve] spent a lot of money and I think we learned the hard way that we need to up our game and that’s why 2018 I think was virtually interference free,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Cornyn disputes GAO report on withholding of Ukraine aid: It's 'certainly not a crime' MORE (R-Texas) told The Hill.

Democrats see political advantage in hitting McConnell and Republicans for holding up legislation to prevent election interference, citing it as an example of the Senate’s “legislative graveyard.”

Republicans, in turn, argue Democrats poisoned the potential for negotiations on election security after they passed H.R. 1 and are trying to federalize elections. The House Democratic bill includes a paper ballot requirement and early voting standards, but also unrelated provisions like requiring a president and vice president to release their tax returns.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonTrump lawyers urge senators to swiftly acquit Trump in impeachment trial Hillicon Valley: Barr asks Apple to unlock Pensacola shooter's phone | Tech industry rallies behind Google in Supreme Court fight | Congress struggles to set rules for cyber warfare with Iran | Blog site Boing Boing hacked Congress struggles on rules for cyber warfare with Iran MORE (R-Wis.) told The Hill that while he would “never say never” to supporting legislation on the topic, he would not support a bill that took away state control over elections.

“I’m not saying there is not an issue with election security, but throwing more money at it or, and this is what always concerns me, potentially nationalizing elections would be the wrong move,” Johnson said.