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Senators Could Use Defense Bill to Push Back on Russia

Bipartisan group files amendments seeking to counter Kremlin election interference

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is among the senators preparing amendments to the defense authorization bill that seek to push back on Russian election interference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is among the senators preparing amendments to the defense authorization bill that seek to push back on Russian election interference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators could find themselves debating election security this week, including how to counter potential efforts by Russia to mess with this year’s midterms.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to use the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill as a venue for amendments related to both protection and response.

One of the key proposals is based on legislation already introduced by Oklahoma Republican James Lankford and Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors.

The bill would provide for security clearances for key state election officials and generally improve information-sharing. It also would bolster the resources available to elections officials to secure their systems.

Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections

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Klobuchar referenced the amendment in a statement Monday commending a Treasury Department announcement of new sanctions against Russian entities.

“Imposing sanctions on Russia for interfering in our 2016 election and now attacking our energy grid sends an important message that we will not tolerate Russia’s behavior. But sanctions alone will not stop Russian cyberattacks,” she said. “Congress must act immediately to protect our country from future attacks by securing our election systems and increasing transparency and disclosure requirements for online political advertisements. Failure to do so emboldens Russia and puts our democracy at risk.”

Lankford, like many of the legislation’s backers, is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Klobuchar, meanwhile, serves as ranking member on the Rules and Administration panel, which has jurisdiction over federal election law.

“The security of our election systems is a major national security issue, and it is appropriate for this legislation to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act,” Lankford said in his own a statement after the amendment was filed last week. “This legislation will help states prepare our election infrastructure for the possibility of interference from Russia, Iran, North Korea, or a domestic hacktivist group.”

More voices

The two senators are not alone.

The Intelligence Committee in March unveiled its first batch of findings in its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, focusing on technical security.

And Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member on the Intelligence panel, has filed several amendments to the defense measure, including one that would require a direct U.S. response in case of further foreign government interference in U.S. elections.

“The sophisticated cyber effort by Russia during the 2016 presidential election made clear just how unprepared we are as a nation to address cyber threats posed by foreign adversaries,” the Virginia Democrat said Monday. 

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who also leads the conference’s campaign operation, is continuing to work with Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio on legislation that would provide for the U.S. to retaliate against foreign governments or their agents if they use social media to spread falsehoods about U.S. elections or engage in buying advertising to influence them.

Like their standalone legislation introduced in January, their amendment filed to the defense authorization bill would direct President Donald Trump to impose new sanctions against Russia within 10 days if the director of national intelligence were to certify that the Russian Federation or any of its related entities once again engaged in interference. The Rubio-Van Hollen effort was the first such bipartisan measure to be introduced.

Which election and cybersecurity amendments have a chance to actually reach the floor will depend on the broader jockeying for position by senators. Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe is managing the effort to reach an amendment agreement, filling in as chairman of the Armed Services Committee during the extended absence of GOP Sen. John McCain, who remains in Arizona.

“This year’s NDAA arrives as our nation faces significant challenges. Challenges like an emboldened Iranian regime, and its continued support of destabilizing forces in the Middle East. Challenges like a new era of great power competition, as Russia and China expand their capabilities,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in opening the floor Monday. “It’s one of our most important jobs here in Congress. The 2019 defense authorization is the top item on our to-do list. And we’ll tackle it this week.”

On a 91-4 vote, senators adopted a motion to proceed to the underlying defense policy bill Monday evening, allowing the real horse-trading to begin.

Trade votes

Among the key questions to be resolved is whether to allow a vote on an amendment drafted by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker that would provide a congressional review process for certain executive branch trade actions taken for national security reasons, such as those taken by Trump with respect to steel and aluminum.

The Tennessee Republican may face an unexpected procedural hurdle, however.

His amendment appears to run afoul of the House’s constitutional prerogative to originate revenue bills, and a senior Senate aide said that issue, a so-called blue-slip issue in congressional parlance, could complicate Corker’s attempt to attach it to the popular defense bill. 

The senator held off on pushing the issue Monday, saying he was working with Inhofe and others to figure out whether it could be addressed. 

At least one of the key debates won’t require a vote. Revised manager’s language includes a bipartisan provision to restore penalties against Chinese telecom firm ZTE that the administration sought to overturn.

The Defense Department and U.S. intelligence community has identified ZTE as a national security risk, citing concerns over surveillance, and the administration’s actions baffled members on both sides of the aisle. 

The amendment was part of a bipartisan effort led by Van Hollen and Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton.

“This amendment will help keep Americans’ private information out of the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, and I’m pleased it will be included in the NDAA,” Cotton said in a statement.

“ZTE has repeatedly violated U.S. law and represents a threat to our national security — Congress cannot and will not allow the Administration to let ZTE off the hook in the interest of Chinese jobs,” Van Hollen said in their joint statement.

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