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McConnell Faces Internal Pressure On Blockade Of Election Security Legislation


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set up a successful blockade against virtually all legislation supported by Democrats. That strategy is facing internal pressure when it comes to election security bills. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has this report.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: When asked this week why Republicans aren't bringing any bipartisan election security bills to the floor, Senate Majority Whip John Thune couldn't easily explain it.


JOHN THUNE: Well, I think - I mean, I think the leader probably is the person to answer that question.

DAVIS: This year, leader McConnell has made clear that when it comes to Democratic priorities, the Senate is his own legislative graveyard. Here he is on Fox.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I am indeed the grim reaper when it comes to the socialist agenda that they've been ginning up over in the House.

DAVIS: When it comes to gun control, immigration or climate change, Republicans have rallied around McConnell's blockade. But Democrats are planning a new push on election security bills, and that might not be as easy to ignore. Intelligence officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, warn Russia will try again in 2020. And some Republicans also want to take further action to deter foreign actors from trying to mess with U.S. elections. That includes Maine Senator Susan Collins.

SUSAN COLLINS: I feel very strongly that we'll pass an election security bill. If you look at the ongoing efforts of the Russians and other foreign adversaries, they are not giving up.

DAVIS: Other Senate Republicans - like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and James Lankford of Oklahoma - have bipartisan bills of their own, aimed at preventing foreign interference. Lankford is realistic when it comes to their chances.

JAMES LANKFORD: I don't know at this point. I think the concern is, as soon as we bring something up, they're going to immediately say not enough. We want to federalize the elections. And then it's just - you're chasing down something that's never going to go anywhere.

DAVIS: House Democrats are now planning to pass a wave of election security bills in July. And Senate Democrats, including Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar, plan to use the annual defense bill up in the Senate right now to offer election security amendments. They'll likely fail, but they're trying to build pressure on their colleagues.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: I need our Republican colleagues to stand up and to say there is something bigger than this partisan politics, and that is protecting our democracy.

DAVIS: Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen is a co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill with Rubio. It would counteract attempted foreign interference in U.S. elections, with a targeted crackdown on Russia if they try again. Van Hollen says the political hurdles to getting that passed are high, when the majority is reluctant to take votes that could be viewed as a rebuke of President Trump.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Look, I think it's this fear among some Republicans that the president will interpret these bills as somehow questioning his legitimacy.

DAVIS: The public is less conflicted. A Monmouth University poll last month showed a majority of Americans are worried the U.S. is not doing enough to stop Russian interference in elections. Just 28% of Americans say enough has been done. North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis is up for reelection in 2020 in a swing state. He told NPR he thinks the Trump administration has already done a good job on election security in states like his. He's not sure any more needs to be done.

THOM TILLIS: I think the leader's right. Before we react to something that may have more political than - political motivation than anything addressing other problems, we ought to take a look at the good work, put our resources on the things that may address any openings or vulnerabilities that we have.

DAVIS: McConnell has agreed to Democratic demands for one thing. The Senate next month will hold an election security briefing with top intelligence and election officials. But as he told Fox, McConnell is already confident the Trump administration is taking future threats seriously.


MCCONNELL: This administration did a terrific job of working with state and local officials to make sure that we had an honest election in 2018 with minimal to no interference. Where is the applause for that?

DAVIS: McConnell's office has not completely ruled out action ahead of the 2020 elections. How often does the grim reaper change his mind?

Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.