House Democrats and Senate Republicans may have attended similar classified briefings on election security Wednesday, but they left with opposite conclusions.
House Democrats expressed deep concerns about the White House’s ability to protect voting systems in 2020, drawing fresh scrutiny to the administration’s efforts to prevent foreign meddling in another election. But Senate Republicans said they had faith in the administration’s handling of the issue and saw no need for further legislation on election security.
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The divergent reactions suggests that while both parties acknowledge the role of Russian interference in the 2016 election, detailed in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report this spring, Congress is unlikely to take any further legislative action.
Leaving the hour-long House briefing, several senior Democrats said they still had key questions about the Trump administration’s work ahead of next November’s election, including which agency is leading the effort to combat foreign interference.
“There is real interest on the part of members of Congress to know who is in charge or what are the operating procedures for the process to move forward,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “And the answers were not as clear as they need to be.”
Thompson said House members were assured that the involved agencies currently have all the necessary resources to secure the 2020 elections. But House Democrats still plan to move forward with additional legislation this month addressing election security after passing another bill — which Democrats said would make voting systems “hack-proof” — shortly before the recess.
The White House’s top intelligence and security officials delivered a blunt assessment of the risks of cyber threats ahead of next November, which lawmakers said they’d largely known already.
Multiple House Democrats emerged from the briefing escalating their warnings about serious threats to the 2020 election, renewing their push to force Republicans to support new legislation to protect U.S. voting systems.
“Nobody can walk out of that and not be concerned,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). “We have a responsibility to make sure that nobody interferes in a free election process.”
But any bills to shore up election systems will go nowhere on the other side of the Capitol, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blatantly dismissing the need for further action hours earlier.
In a floor speech earlier Wednesday, McConnell (R-Ky.) said that while Congress will continue to “assess whether future legislative steps might be needed,” he accused Democrats of making election security a political issue.
“We need to make sure this conversation is clear-eyed and sober and serious,” he said. “It’s interesting that some of our colleagues across the aisle seem to have already made up their minds before we hear from the experts later today. Their brand-new sweeping Washington intervention is just what the doctor ordered.”
Senate Republicans, following Wednesday’s election briefing, said they agreed. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Rules Committee, predicted that his committee would not take up any legislation related to federal elections.
“Federalism of the process would I think add an extra level of confusion rather than an extra level of protection,” Blunt said. “New federal election laws would not be the right thing to do so I would assume we would have no legislation like that come through the Rules Committee.”
Concerns about the federal government overreaching on election security was echoed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), both of whom said the briefing was not a game-changer for them. Graham additionally praised the administration’s approach to election security in the 2018 election.
“Being able to notify states of intrusion, really upping their game there- so that was pretty impressive and it seems to be the states are working much better together with the federal government,” he said.
But Senate Democrats continued to call on Congress to do more. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who called for the briefing, said it is “obvious we have to do a lot more at both the public sector and private sector levels to combat” foreign interference. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, additionally said the White House needs to do more to aid security officials.
“As these organizations try to protect the integrity of our election system they’re not helped when the president goes to a G20 meeting and jokes about this issues with Vladimir Putin, they’re not helped when the Congress fails to pass common sense bipartisan legislation,” Warner (D-Va.) said.
McConnell has faced scrutiny over his handling of the issue. In 2016, the Washington Post reported he expressed doubts about the conclusion from U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian interference in a briefing with Congressional leaders. McConnell denied that he did so.
The briefings included Trump administration officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Schumer said they “should be a springboard for action.”
“I was amazed to listen to Republican Leader McConnell this morning, who, before the briefing has even taken place, seems to be pre-judging the results of the meeting, saying that another Washington intervention in this matter is misguided,” Schumer said.
The all-Senate briefing was long sought by from Schumer, who has also called for additional legislation to increase election security. Democrats have tried and failed to previously pass such legislation by voice vote. Schumer also has said he would push for more election security funding as part of budget negotiations.
House Democrats already passed sweeping election-focused legislation in the early weeks of their majority, including measures to combat the kind of Russian interference that was seen in the 2016 elections.
But those bills have stalled, and Democratic leaders are now eyeing a second round of election bills on the floor as part of their public pressure campaign aimed at McConnell.
Moderate Democrats, who have been among the most vocal on the issue, have also seen it as a chance for Democrats to highlight often-ignored pieces from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s tactics in 2016.
Burgess Everett contributed to this story.