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 GrahamRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Hillicon Valley: Apple, Facebook defend encryption during Senate grilling | Tech legal shield makes it into trade deal | Impeachment controversy over phone records heats up | TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings MORE (R-S.C.) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties North Carolina congressman says he won't seek reelection after redistricting Senate passes bipartisan bill to permanently fund historically black colleges MORE (R-N.C.), who have backed passing additional legislation. On the other side are powerful figures including Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial On The Money: Pelosi, Trump tout deal on new NAFTA | McConnell says no trade vote until impeachment trial wraps up | Lawmakers push spending deadline to Thursday McConnell: Senate impeachment trial will begin in January MORE (R-Ky.) and Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Senate braces for brawl on Trump impeachment rules Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans 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 ThuneRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial McConnell: Senate impeachment trial will begin in January McConnell: Senate will not take up new NAFTA deal this year 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 KlobucharTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Biden narrowly ahead in Iowa as Sanders surges, Warren drops: poll Overnight Defense: Dems unveil impeachment articles against Trump | Saudi military flight students grounded after shooting | Defense bill takes heat from progressives | Pentagon watchdog to probe use of personnel on border 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 TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech 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 WarnerTikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings, inflaming tensions Watchdog report finds FBI not motivated by political bias in Trump probe Ex-Rep. Scott Taylor to seek old Virginia seat 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 IngrahamHouse GOP wants Senate Republicans to do more on impeachment Vindman's lawyer requests Fox News retract guest's allegation about espionage Overnight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul 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 CollinsRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Group of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' Defense bill includes fix for military families' survivor benefits 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 LankfordTrump to sign order penalizing colleges over perceived anti-Semitism on campus: report Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Israeli, Palestinian business leaders seek Trump boost for investment project 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 CornynHillicon Valley: Apple, Facebook defend encryption during Senate grilling | Tech legal shield makes it into trade deal | Impeachment controversy over phone records heats up | TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings Apple, Facebook defend encryption during Senate grilling Lighthizer starts GOP charm offensive on Trump trade deal 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 JohnsonImpeachment surprise: Bills Congress could actually pass in 2020 Senate braces for brawl on Trump impeachment rules Trump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe 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.