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Mueller remarks put renewed focus on election security bills

Mueller remarks put renewed focus on election security bills

Legislation aimed at securing U.S. elections got an unexpected shot in the arm this week when Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE devoted a fair share of his first remarks on the Russia probe to the threat posed by foreign actors seeking to undermine democracy at the ballot box.

Election security bills have been languishing in Congress for months, due in large part to Republicans who do not want to shine a light on Russia's actions and risk the fury of President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE.

The president weighed in on the issue Thursday, telling reporters that “we are doing a lot, and we are trying to do paper ballots as a backup system as much as possible, because going to good old-fashioned paper in this modern age is the best way to do it.”

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Those remarks came after he said Russia did not help him secure the presidency — his first on-camera response to Mueller's comments, though he tweeted earlier in the day that Russia helped him win the election.

The president’s comments came a day after Mueller shined a spotlight on Russia's attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Mueller emphasized that “the central allegation of our indictments” was “there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election.”

He ended his 10-minute statement by saying this “deserves the attention of every American.”

Election security has been a major focus on Capitol Hill in recent months, mostly among Democrats, with lawmakers introducing several bills designed to combat foreign interference.

However, most legislation has been at a standstill following Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses McConnell: Power-sharing deal can proceed after Manchin, Sinema back filibuster Budowsky: A Biden-McConnell state of emergency summit MORE’s (R-Ky.) “case closed” comments earlier this month regarding Mueller’s Russia investigation. 

McConnell has instead highlighted the work put into securing election systems during the 2018 midterm elections by the Department of Homeland Security and the Trump administration, saying that combating threats “requires serious work.”

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Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntTrump, allies raise pressure on Senate GOP ahead of impeachment This week: Senate stuck in limbo Skepticism reigns as Biden, McConnell begin new era MORE (R-Mo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership and chairman of the Rules Committee, said during a hearing this month that “the majority leader is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion” on the topic of election security legislation. Blunt added that he was not planning on scheduling any markups of election security legislation because “at this point I don’t see any likelihood that these bills would get to the floor.”

But at least one election security bill has the potential for movement.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordHawley files ethics counter-complaint against seven Democratic senators Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury The Hill's 12:30 Report: What to expect for inauguration MORE (R-Okla.) told The Hill on Thursday that he plans to reintroduce the Secure Elections Act next week. The measure stalled during the previous Congress due to a lack of GOP support in the Rules Committee, but was one of the election security bills with the highest profiles in Congress.

While Lankford said there will be some changes to the bill text, the underlying legislation would strengthen cybersecurity information sharing between the federal government and state and local election officials, while also requiring all jurisdictions perform post-election audits to verify Election Day results.

He said the new version of the bill will not include funding for states to improve their election security practices, but will require all jurisdictions to implement audits if they want any future funding.

Lankford added that his office has been working closely with the White House counsel on the bill’s language, but did not go so far as to say whether Trump would support the legislation.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Lankford said the counsel’s office has made “reasonable suggestions,” and emphasized that they want to make sure the bill does not interfere with states being in charge of elections.

“We have to make sure that when we do have a federal election, the system is as secure as possible,” Lankford said.

It remains unclear whether McConnell will support the GOP bill when it is reintroduced. A spokesperson for McConnell told The Hill they had no comment at this time, but pointed to McConnell’s previous comments on election security legislation.

A spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMcConnell: Power-sharing deal can proceed after Manchin, Sinema back filibuster Justice watchdog to probe whether officials sought to interfere with election Capitol insurrection fallout: A PATRIOT Act 2.0? MORE (D-N.Y.), meanwhile, told The Hill that the senator would support legislation that creates “additional sanctions” against foreign adversaries interfering in U.S. elections, and “additional resources” to help state and local election officials address election security threats.

There has been a flurry of other election security bills introduced by congressional Democrats in recent months as well, with sponsors seizing on Mueller’s comments as a reason to move forward. The most prominent of these is H.R. 1, which includes sweeping election security and integrity reforms.

The House passed that measure along party lines in March, but McConnell has said he will not bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

Another Democratic bill, the Election Security Act, would go further than the Secure Elections Act by requiring states to use “voter-verified paper ballots," and require the establishment of cybersecurity standards for voting system vendors.

The measure is being spearheaded by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonCapitol insurrection fallout: A PATRIOT Act 2.0? New coalition aims to combat growing wave of ransomware attacks Acting DHS chief Chad Wolf stepping down MORE (D-Miss.), House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenLawmakers briefed on 'horrifying,' 'chilling' security threats ahead of inauguration Efforts to secure elections likely to gain ground in Democrat-controlled Congress Capitol Police chief announces resignation after pro-Trump riots MORE (D-Calif.) and Rep. John SarbanesJohn Peter Spyros SarbanesEfforts to secure elections likely to gain ground in Democrat-controlled Congress Former Md. senator Paul Sarbanes dies at 87 Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? MORE (D-Md.). 

After Mueller’s surprise remarks on Wednesday, Thompson said in a statement that “the House took critical action toward preserving the integrity of our democratic institutions when it passed H.R. 1 earlier this year, and it is long past time for Senate leadership to allow a vote on the bill.”

Thompson urged House Republicans to support the Election Security Act, saying “the time is now to give Americans the confidence in their vote they rightfully deserve.”

Another bill in the Senate, the Voting Systems Cybersecurity Act, has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee, a spokesperson for Sen. Gary PetersGary PetersThe Hill's Morning Report - President Biden, Vice President Harris begin work today Two Senate committees vow probe of security failure during Capitol riots US government caught blindsided over sophisticated cyber hack, experts say MORE (D-Mich.), one of the bill’s sponsors, told The Hill. But Blunt is unlikely to move forward with the legislation.

“Sen. Peters thinks we need to do more to secure our elections and protect against efforts from our adversaries to interfere in our democracy,” the spokesperson said. “Given the importance of this issue we hope it [the bill] moves forward soon.”