Pressure grows on McConnell for special Russia hacking probe

Sen. Cory Gardner plans to introduce legislation to create a select committee to investigate an array of cyber security threats.

Sen. Cory Gardner took pains to cast his proposal as far broader than the Russian hacking of U.S. election officials. | AP Photo

Sen. Cory Gardner took pains to cast his proposal as far broader than the Russian hacking of U.S. election officials. | AP Photo

John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s bipartisan push to create a special committee to investigate Russia’s election-season hacking and other cybersecurity threats received a potential boost Monday as a third GOP senator announced legislation to make their idea a reality.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told POLITICO he would introduce a bill that, if passed, would mandate a new select Senate committee on cybersecurity. The move could intensify pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who so far has resisted appointing a select committee on cybersecurity. He insists the chamber’s traditional committees, led by the intelligence panel, should handle the issue.

Gardner’s move came a day after GOP Sens. McCain (R-Ariz.) and Graham (R-S.C.), along with incoming Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), called for a special panel in a bipartisan letter to McConnell. It’s unclear, however, how extensive GOP support will be for a select committee, since any Republicans who get behind the proposal will be implicitly siding with the Democratic Senate leader instead of their own.

Though Gardner previously has called for a special cybersecurity committee — his pleas to do so predated the spate of recent attention on Russia’s interference in the presidential election by more than a year — the plan to introduce legislation mandating it is new. It adds a fresh wrinkle to an issue that’s dividing the Senate Republican Conference.

Gardner, who is close with McConnell, took pains to cast his proposal as far broader than the Russian hacking of U.S. election officials. His hope is to introduce the bill with bipartisan cosponsors early next year.

“From North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures to Iran’s attack on a New York dam, it’s evident that we are facing a growing cybersecurity challenge. The nature and complexity of recent cyber-attacks require a whole of government approach to cyberspace and the development of federal policy to mitigate the threat and protect everything from personal information to the security of our critical infrastructure,” Gardner said in a statement.

The biggest advocates for a select committee are executing a full-court pressure campaign. Graham and Schumer, on the heels of their weekend missive, will appear together Tuesday on NBC’s “Today Show” on the latest in their bipartisan push, a Republican aide said.

While taking on their own leaders is nothing new for Graham and McCain, it’s a tougher call for other Republicans, especially because of Schumer’s involvement. Gardner’s long-running support for the idea makes his bill less an act of defiance.

So far, most other Republicans aren’t ready to join McCain and Graham. POLITICO contacted the offices of more than a dozen GOP lawmakers on Monday, and none endorsed the notion of a new committee. The Senate Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Armed Services panels are all investigating the matter independently.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a hawk on Russia policy, and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an ally of McCain, believe the existing structure is the best way to probe interference in the election, spokesmen for the lawmakers said.

“Sen. Flake believes that the Senate’s standing committees are capable of handling the investigation,” a spokesman for Flake said.

Ditto Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the famously moderate GOP senator. She is sticking with McConnell’s contention that North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr’s Intelligence Committee is the best place for a congressional investigation into Russia and cyber-warfare. She said Monday that the Intelligence Committee on which she serves will be able to move more nimbly than a new panel.

“If we were to create a cyber select committee, it would be months before the committee could even begin its investigation. Members would need to be appointed and expert staff with security clearances would need to be hired, greatly and harmfully prolonging our ability to achieve an objective accounting,” Collins said in a statement.

But McCain, in an appearance on CNN Sunday, argued the opposite. He said that the “serious business” of Vladimir Putin’s influence on American politics requires a coordinated and focused approach that overlapping committees cannot achieve. As Armed Services chairman, McCain is launching his own probe with Graham, while Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is heading up a third investigation on the Foreign Relations Committee.

“The responsibilities for cyber [are] spread over about four different committees in the Senate. And each doing their own thing, frankly, is not going to be the most efficient way of arriving at a conclusion,” McCain said on Sunday.

McConnell had no reaction to the calls for a select committee on Monday, a spokesman said. Last week, Burr’s committee introduced a detailed plan for an investigation into the Russian hacking, which was promptly endorsed by Collins and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). Burr’s panel often operates behind closed doors, creating less transparency in the view of many Democrats who believe Donald Trump won, in part, because of Russian influence.

Gardner’s plan would give top Republicans and Democrats on panels with current oversight over cybersecurity prominent roles on the select committees, sources familiar with the proposal said. The bill would seek to avoid jurisdictional fights; committees are often loathe to surrender any oversight to another panel.

The long winter recess has made it difficult for Republicans to project a unified message. Senators are dispersed across the country and traveling abroad.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), for example, has been among the most vocal senators about investigating Russian influence in the elections. But while McCain was preparing on Saturday for his appearance on CNN, Lankford was halfway around the world in South Korea.

“Although Sen. Lankford is definitely supportive of further investigation into Russian hacking/cybersecurity, he is noncommittal on a select committee, at this time,” an aide said.

Many Republican senators are unlikely to make waves on the matter until January, when the 52 GOP senators in the next Congress convene again in Washington. Adding to their caution is the fact that the Obama administration is planning to issue a new assessment of the extent of the hacking before Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20, potentially further scrambling the debate.

Democrats, meanwhile, are rallying behind the select committee proposal. Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) both endorsed the idea on Monday, and the Democratic National Committee is touting it as well.

“I think the public needs to feel confident in the end result” of the election, said Stabenow, a Democratic leader. “My concern is that putting this in the Intelligence Committee puts minimal accountability behind closed doors. And this needs public accountability.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.