Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rare display of defensiveness and anger this week after refusing to consider election-security legislation illustrates the increasing pressure on him to address an issue that President Trump has largely dismissed.

The Kentucky Republican accused critics of “modern-day McCarthyism” after they tagged him online as #MoscowMitch and charged him with leaving the U.S. vulnerable to new meddling by Russia in the 2020 election. With the Senate about to leave Washington for a five-week August break, there’s no resolution in sight.

Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has blocked efforts to hold a debate and vote in the Senate on election-security proposals. Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

“We’re open to any suggestions people may have about how to improve the system,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday, days after his Senate Republicans blocked Democratic efforts to bring up several proposals.

Pressure ramped up on McConnell dramatically over the past week after FBI Director Christopher Wray and former Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned Congress that Russia is actively meddling and plans to interfere in the 2020 elections. More needs to be done to deter the Russians, the two men said.

A Senate Intelligence Committee report warning of Russian attacks on state election systems added to the fire. So did Trump’s decision to replace widely respected Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats with Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe, a conservative Republican who agreed with Trump’s use of the term “witch hunt” to describe Mueller’s Russia probe.

Trump said Tuesday that the intelligence agencies have “run amok” and that Ratcliffe will “rein it in.”

The president has frequently dismissed any suggestion that Russia’s actions had anything to do with his electoral victory. The New York Times reported in April that his Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had told then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen not to bring up Russian election-meddling in front of the president.

The president said this week on Twitter, though, that the voting system should have “Paper Ballots as backup (old fashioned but true!).”

After Senate Democrats unsuccessfully tried to bring up several election-security bills last week, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Republicans of turning the chamber into a “legislative graveyard.”

“Here’s an easy way for Leader McConnell to silence the critics who accuse him of blocking election security: stop blocking it,” Schumer said.

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough described McConnell as “Moscow Mitch,” kicking off the social media trend. And Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called him a “Russian asset.”

McConnell has proudly called himself the “grim reaper” for Democratic proposals he views as socialist, and his campaign is selling T-shirts bearing the phrase.

But McConnell made an angry floor speech Monday defending his record of being tough on Russia. He blasted Scarborough and others for “modern day McCarthyism” and said he’s open to any ideas to upgrade security. But he hasn’t identified anything he supports beyond the $380 million Congress appropriated last year.

Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt said Republican opposition to Democratic proposals, including those passed by the House last month, is based in part on concern that further nationalizing the local election systems would create centralized vulnerabilities that can be more easily exploited by foreign actors.

“That system would not be improved if it were directed by Washington, D.C., in a one-size-fits-all solution,” Blunt said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

McConnell’s resistance to election bills isn’t new – he’s long opposed federal control over elections and has led opposition to campaign-finance regulations for decades.

But while McConnell touted his opposition to election-related legislation as efforts to block Democrats from seeking partisan advantage from a crisis, the majority leader also has effectively stuffed a number of bipartisan bills into a legislative drawer.

In a May hearing, Blunt pointed to McConnell as the reason why election security legislation wasn’t debated on the chamber’s floor last year and wouldn’t be this year either.

Stalled bipartisan proposals include the Secure Elections Act written by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma with Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota in the previous Congress, as well as Klobuchar’s Honest Ads Act requiring disclosure of election ads on the Internet, which is co-sponsored by GOP Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham.

“We were blocked at the Rules Committee,” Klobuchar said on the Senate floor Thursday. “This is not about one election or one party. This is about our democracy and our national security.”

Lankford has said the window for upgrading election systems before 2020 has closed. Even if new standards and funding are passed to aid states with upgrades for things like paper ballot backups, he said, there’s not enough time to put them into effect. Lankford said this week he’s still working on a new version of his bill.

Other bipartisan measures aimed at punishing Russia have stalled as well.

GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland this week renewed their push for a bill to impose stiff sanctions on Russia or other countries that meddle in future elections. They want to add it to a major defense policy bill in a conference committee, and Rubio said he hasn’t been able to get a hearing in the Banking Committee.

McConnell told reporters more than a year ago that the Senate might vote on the bill, but never brought it to the floor.

Another Russia sanctions bill from New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Graham will be considered in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Menendez is the ranking Democrat. The panel’s GOP chairman, Jim Risch, on Wednesday agreed to revisit the long-stalled bill when the Senate returns in September.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine became the first Republican to sponsor Intelligence Democrat Mark Warner’s proposal to require campaigns to notify authorities of contacts from foreign agents. This measure took on greater significance after Trump told ABC in an interview that he might accept campaign help from foreign actors. He later walked back those comments.

Collins will play a key role in considering confirmation of Ratcliffe because she’s on the Intelligence Committee, where Republicans have only a one-seat majority. Democratic leader Schumer has already said he’ll fight Ratcliffe as an unqualified Trump loyalist.

While McConnell praised Coats and singled out his role in helping coordinate the response to Russia’s election-meddling efforts, the majority leader has had little to say about Ratcliffe. He told reporters he hasn’t met the nominee and will wait to discuss his qualifications.

 

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