Hill push to battle foreign election interference is stuck at McConnell roadblock

WASHINGTON — Not every Republican agrees with President Trump that foreigners have a role to play in American elections.

In fact, some GOP senators have joined with Democrats to co-sponsor legislation designed to shore up voting machines and make it harder for foreign intelligence operatives to hack, leak and manipulate social media the way the Russians did in 2016.

But those bills are going nowhere — because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not allowed a vote on any of them.

June 12, 201908:51

“At this point, I don’t see any likelihood that those bills would get to the floor if we mark them up,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who serves under McConnell in the Senate leadership, said last month.

McConnell himself has avoided commenting directly on the bills. He declined to respond to questions about them at his weekly news conference this week, although he announced that senators would get a briefing on election security.

The election security and foreign interference legislation is garnering renewed attention in the wake of Trump’s comments Wednesday to ABC News that he saw nothing wrong with accepting incriminating information about a political opponent from Russia or other foreign governments.

“It’s not an interference. They have information,” Trump said. “I think I’d take it.”

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, immediately tweeted in response to Trump’s comments that “if the president and his campaign can’t be trusted to do the right thing,” Congress should pass his bill, which would require political campaigns to report to the FBI and federal election authorities any attempt of contact by foreign nationals offering services or information.

On Thursday, in the wake of Trump’s comments, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Warner made a request to pass the measure; Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., objected.

That measure doesn’t have any Republican co-sponsors. But Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally, has joined with Democrats in co-sponsoring the “Defending the Integrity of Voting Systems Act,” which would make it a federal crime to hack any voting systems used in a federal election.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., meanwhile, has co-sponsored the “Deter Act,” which would require the U.S. director of National Intelligence to determine, within 30 days of any federal election, whether Russia or other foreign government had engaged in election interference.

If interference was discovered, the act would require that mandatory sanctions be imposed within 10 days on Russian banks and energy companies, among other targets.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., has sponsored a bill that would craft voluntary security guidelines for voting systems — a measure that does not go far enough for most Democrats.

On the social media front, a bill by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democratic candidate for president, would require that political ads placed on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube be subject to the same disclosure requirements as television spots. That would allow the public to learn who was paying for the ads and how much was spent.

The Democratic-controlled House has passed several election security and foreign interference measures, but few if any of them have a chance of becoming law. The Democrats did insert $600 million for election security in a must-pass spending bill, but that will have to be negotiated.

June 12, 201904:14

According to published reports, McConnell refused in September 2016 to sign on to a bipartisan warning about Russian election interference when the Obama administration requested one from Congress.

McConnell’s office has pushed back by pointing to a September 2016 letter, signed by congressional leaders from both parties, and sent to the president of the National Association of State Election Directors that warned state officials about possible hacking efforts, but did not mention Russia.

For his part, even before he decreed it morally acceptable to make use of opposition research from foreign intelligence operatives, Trump has displayed little interest in the issue of how to protect American elections from outside interference.

While individual agencies such as the FBI have stepped up efforts to combat foreign influence, there is no evidence of a coordinated policy response out of the White House — something experts say is badly needed to grapple with difficult issues surrounding social media and free speech — and the local control afforded to America’s county-by-county voting system.

FBI Director Christopher Wray and top intelligence officials have said they expect Russia and other nations to attempt to meddle in the 2020 presidential election, building on the successful playbook that Russia employed in 2016.

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