GOP punches back in election security fight

Republicans are pushing back on Democrats after sustaining more than a week’s worth of attacks over stalled election security bills.

GOP senators this week countered accusations from across the aisle that they are thwarting all efforts to secure the 2020 elections, arguing instead that Senate Democrats are abandoning the legislative process, treading on states' rights and misleading voters about what their legislation would do.

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“When they talk about federalizing elections, or having to have a central D.C. location to be able to give certification to every vendor or Voter ID laws or federal funding for elections, those are not election security items, that’s a completely different thing,” Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordBurr requests ethics investigation into stock sale, denies wrongdoing Senior GOP senators object to direct payments at caucus meeting Senate passes House's coronavirus aid bill, sending it to Trump MORE (R-Okla.), one of the main Republicans pushing for election security legislation, told The Hill this week.

Other Republicans pointed to a recent all-member Senate briefing, given by senior administration officials on election security efforts, as their reasoning for not wanting to pass election bills.

“When we were in the briefing we asked, ‘Do you need further authority?’ And the people in charge of election security don’t need any further authority, they don’t need a law,” Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP seeks up to 0 billion to maximize financial help to airlines, other impacted industries Dr. Rand Paul's prescription for combating the coronavirus crisis Senate passes House's coronavirus aid bill, sending it to Trump MORE (R-Wis.) told The Hill.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La) told reporters that he felt “we are on top of the election.”  

“If you had attended the classified briefings I attended, you would have been impressed,” he added.

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The comments from GOP senators came as Republicans are attempting to reframe the election security debate by explaining their rationale for consistently blocking related bills, despite warnings from former 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 that Russia is actively planning on a repeat performance of its 2016 election interference.

Top Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing COVID-19, Bill Barr and the American authoritarian tradition MORE (D-N.Y.), have repeatedly come to the floor in the past week to try to pass various election security bills by unanimous consent. Each time, they have been blocked from passage by Senate Republicans, who have cited concerns around these bills not being bipartisan and their potential to federalize aspects of elections.

Senate Democrats have directed blistering attacks at Republicans, particularly Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Trump signs T coronavirus relief package Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing MORE (R-Ky.), for refusing to allow votes on the measures. McConnell’s refusal to allow any votes led to #MoscowMitch trending on Twitter.

The moniker even came up on the debate stage this week, when former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro referred to “Moscow Mitch” during the second round of Democratic presidential debates in reference to McConnell potentially blocking impeachment proceedings against President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE if the House were to initiate them.

McConnell hit back during a floor speech this week, calling the nickname and allegations akin to “modern-day McCarthyism.”

“Last week, I stopped Democrats from passing an election law bill through the Senate by unanimous consent. A bill that was so partisan that it only received one single Republican vote in the House. My Democratic friends asked for unanimous consent to pass a bill that everyone knows isn’t unanimous, and never will be unanimous. So I objected,” he said.

The bill McConnell was referring to was passed by the House in June. The bill includes many provisions designed to secure elections from interference, such as providing $600 million in funds for states to implement security improvements and requiring the use of voter-verified paper ballots. It passed the House by a vote of 225-184, with only one Republican voting in favor.

Lankford argued that since states are constitutionally given the authority to run their elections, they should fund security improvements.

“Just as cutting the grass at the governor’s mansion is a state responsibility, so is running their elections,” he said. “Now there is a federal nexus in this, in that if they mess up a federal election, that has national consequences. But ultimately it’s their responsibility, so I don’t want us to get into funding every single state.”

Congress appropriated $380 million to states through the Election Assistance Commission last year, much of which has been used to put in place cybersecurity enhancements and replace outdated voting equipment.

Almost two dozen Democratic state attorneys general sent a letter to Congress in June asking that lawmakers appropriate “sustained” funding to states for election security purposes.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Democratic Senators urge FTC to prevent coronavirus price gouging Democratic senators call on FDA to drop restrictions on blood donations from men who have sex with men MORE (Minn.), who is running for president, and backed by 38 other Democrats would appropriate $1 billion to states to improve election security, with an additional $175 million given for the same purpose every two years through 2026.

But in some instances, funding is not the issue blocking consideration in the Senate.

H.R. 1, known as the For the People Act, has been stalled in the Senate ever since it was passed by the House in March on a party-line vote. McConnell has labeled it the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” and has said it will never come to the Senate floor.

Lankford argued that bill has little to do with stopping foreign interference in elections. Some of the provisions include creating nationwide automatic voter registration, ending the practice of gerrymandering and requiring organizations involved in politics to disclose their financial activity.

“With the passage of H.R. 1 at the beginning of this session, it’s less hopeful that we can pass just an actual election security bill, that we’re not going to try to have the House jump in and say, ‘OK, now that we’re talking about election security, let’s also talk about everything else with elections and federalizing all these other things,’” Lankford said. “We have no interest in doing that.”

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting Lawmakers brace for more coronavirus legislation after trillion bill MORE (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee with jurisdiction over election security legislation, went to the floor this week to dispute the narrative that Republicans are opposed to securing elections.

“Our friends came to the floor last week and they sought unanimous consent to make sweeping changes in the election laws of the country and then somehow suggested there is a conspiracy that anybody would say no to that,” Blunt said, adding that unanimous consent “is what we do when we name a post office ... it is not how we shape the laws at the heart of our democracy.”

One bill that is positioned to garner bipartisan support and potentially break the deadlock is the Secure Elections Act, backed by Lankford and Klobuchar in the previous Congress. The measure failed to make it through the Rules Committee, with Klobuchar blaming the White House and Lankford saying too many people “jumped in” with suggestions.

The two senators are looking to reintroduce the bill this Congress, and according to Lankford are only working out “verbs, nouns, and adjectives” before putting it out.

The previous iteration of the bill 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.

While McConnell has not yet been asked to support the bill, Lankford said that last year the majority leader was not opposed to the “concept” of the legislation, adding that he has been receiving “technical assistance” from the White House on the bill’s new language.

But in the meantime, Lankford said Senate Democrats are the ones spreading disinformation when it comes to election security legislation.

“You’re not going to find a Republican opposed to election security," Lankford said. "Contrary to popular belief, we don’t want elections interfered with either."