WASHINGTON (CN) – When Congress returns from recess in September, a bitter battle to pass legislation securing national elections will unfold. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a preview of what’s to come in a fiery defense of his leadership from the Senate floor.
In a 30-minute speech Monday, the Kentucky Republican appeared to lose his cool as he railed against the contents of an op-ed published in the Washington Post by columnist Dana Milbank.
The column was far from kind to McConnell – it dubbed him a “Russian asset” due to his routine obstruction of election security legislation led by Demcorats. Milbank also asserted the longtime majority leader was “unpatriotic” and unmovable in the face of numerous warnings from authorities – including those in the Trump administration – that the threat posed to U.S. election systems is pervasive and ongoing.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller attested to the continued threat during a hearing last week but it did little to sway McConnell. who that same afternoon promptly blocked legislation brought forward by Democrats in the Senate that would have required candidates, campaign officials and family members of campaign officials to alert the FBI if they received offers of assistance from agents of a foreign government.
Twenty-four hours later, McConnell also killed a bill that mandated the use of paper ballots and allotted funding for the Election Assistance Commission, an independent body which maintains voting guidelines and certifies voting systems.
The Republican lawmaker chalked up his decision to a “routine occurrence” in light of the fact that the legislation was formed under a unanimous consent request, a technical congressional procedure that forces a vote to the floor but can easily be blocked by a single objection.
The consent request indicated the issue was too partisan to pass quickly through the Senate, McConnell argued. A refusal to hear it out, he added, did not make he or other Republicans “traitors or un-American.”
“It makes us policymakers with a different opinion,” he said on Monday.
Milbank’s opinion of McConnell didn’t sit well with the majority leader.
“Let me make this crystal clear for the hyperventilating hacks who haven’t actually followed this issue. Every single member of the Senate agrees that Russian meddling was real and is real. We all agree that the federal government, state governments and the private sector have obligations to take this threat seriously and bolster our defenses,” McConnell said.
But the tallies in Congress tell a different tale. Victories for election security in the Democratic-controlled House have been largely empty: the two bills that passed in that chamber were sidelined once they hit the Senate.
Though lawmakers managed to approve a $380 million election security package last year, it was not until last month, following the release of long-awaited report on election security threats issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee, that legislators passed a bill prohibiting people who have interfered in American elections from obtaining visas.
The report is one of five volumes the committee will release over the next month.
As those reports trickle out, other resolutions like the SAFE Act will likely continue to languish. Passed by the House in June, the bill requires voting centers to use backup paper ballots and allots $600 million to the Election Assistance Commission for security preparation ahead of the 2020 election.
It also includes a promise to infuse another $175 million biannually for election infrastructure and creates a purse of $5 million for voter verification research. The bill has not been entertained in the Senate.
The next push to pass legislation comes after Congress returns from the August recess. H.R. 2660, or the Election Security Act of 2019, sponsored by Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has sat in committee since June for mark-ups. It would provide funding and guidelines for states.
McConnell said Monday the commentary in the Washington Post regarding his tenure as “essentially treasonous” was akin to “modern-day McCarthyism,” a reference to a period during the 1950s where Senator Joseph McCarthy accused dozens of politicians, actors, writers, artists and others of being communists.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., offered a challenge to his Republican colleague.
“Let’s debate it on the floor with amendments… Support additional appropriations for states to harden their election systems,” Schumer said.
The hardening of those systems is still very much a concern, according to a report released this month by the Brennan Center for Justice. The report found that the $380 million Congress passed for election security last year is still not enough to meet the needs of several states where voting machines have aged out and the post-election audit systems are lacking.