SARAH FERRIS, POLITICO
Democrats in the House’s most hard-fought seats hope they’ve found a way out of their impeachment dilemma.
Leaders of the moderate Blue Dog Caucus are launching a push this week to drag the conversation back to Russian meddling in the 2016 election — and away from mounting calls from many of their own colleagues to try to remove President Donald Trump from office. The group on Tuesday night agreed to endorse nearly a dozen bipartisan bills related to election security, eager to reclaim the national debate over special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. They will formally unveil the plans at a press briefing Friday.
The efforts stem from a real sense of urgency for Congress to tackle gaps in the nation’s election infrastructure, coming from a group that includes ex-national security officials. But it’s also a chance for Democratic centrists to pivot away from what they see as a politically toxic debate over impeachment.
Instead, they’re urging Democrats to refocus on the unprecedented Russian interference in U.S. elections — a conclusion of Mueller’s report that has been vastly overshadowed by its explosive findings on presidential obstruction of justice.
“We haven’t been talking about the fact that we were attacked by a foreign adversary,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) a former CIA officer, said in an interview. “If we’re only talking about allegations of conspiracy and all of the other discussion topics [in the Mueller report], then we’re leaving out a really important element.”
The moderates’ push comes as House Democratic leaders have already begun work on a sweeping new legislative package to serve as their caucus’s formal response to the Mueller report, led by Democracy Reform Task Force chairman Rep. John Sarbanes. That legislation is expected to come to the floor sometime this summer — though it remains unclear if it will have bipartisan support, something that the Blue Dogs have stressed.
“The fact is that Russian interference in our elections is the one thing there’s consensus around, and so we should work in a bipartisan way,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition. Murphy, whose home state’s voting systems were targeted by Russian hackers, has drafted her own bill, with Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), that would require public disclosure of any election security breach.
Democrats say it only strengthens their cause that Trump himself drew broad condemnation last week for saying on national television that he would be willing to accept dirt on opponents from foreign agents in the 2020 election.
Since Mueller released his findings in April, the Blue Dog Coalition has sought to redirect Democrats’ focus to Russia, instead of the impeachment fight that has consumed a small, but vocal, faction of their caucus. More than 60 Democrats currently back starting an impeachment inquiry, more than a quarter of the caucus.
Many moderates, particularly the new crop of freshmen with backgrounds in national security, have grown impatient as Trump’s actions have dominated headlines, with hardly any mention of the roughly 200 pages in Mueller’s report that describe Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” attack on the U.S. elections.
“It’s almost like people would rather talk about impeachment,” one senior Democratic aide said.
Meanwhile, pressure has ticked up as some Democrats in battleground seats have come out in favor of impeachment, including Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who defeated former GOP Rep. Mimi Walters by just 4 points.
The House’s new strategy — to draft a legislative response to an array of concerns in the Mueller report — emerged after several members, including Murphy, raised concerns to Democratic leaders that the caucus wasn’t doing enough to respond to the substance of the Mueller report, particularly on Russian interference.
Approving a Mueller-focused package of bills on the floor could help Democratic leaders temporarily relieve pressure from their pro-impeachment caucus, with many lawmakers anxious to take action against the president. But anything overtly partisan, moderates warn, would cost them much-needed GOP votes.
The strategy is twofold: a way to pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has ignored every piece of legislation that Democrats have sent over. But it also allows Democrats to take a direct shot at Russia for interfering in elections and the party’s best chance of finding GOP support.
“Recognizing that and talking about it separately from anything else that the Mueller report details is incredibly important,” Spanberger said of Russian interference.
The Virginia Democrat said she and others largely failed to convince Republicans to cosponsor election security bills earlier because the legislation was wrapped into the broader bill, H.R. 1, which contained a raft of liberal policies like expanding voting rights and targeting Super-PACS.
But some of those bills — like one from Spanberger that calls for a nationwide threat assessment ahead of each election — could win over Republicans this time around.
Two months after the Mueller report was released, Democrats in both chambers are now looking to reset their party’s approach to shoring up election systems with 2020 fast approaching.
Many rank-and-file Democrats felt that their vote on H.R. 1 — which came a month before Mueller’s report came out — had been lost in the noise. Some also said they were frustrated that the Democratic party, from the DNC to congressional leadership offices, failed to present a unified response to the stunning interference in the 2016 elections.
“It was like, ‘Holy shit, this actually happened, and no one is hitting the panic button yet,’” a senior Democratic aide said of the Russian interference.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his caucus are attempting to force votes on election security on a must-pass defense authorization bill next week, hammering Republicans for blocking their efforts.
“The Republican Senate leader McConnell just stands there and twiddles their thumbs and says almost, ‘Come on Putin let it happen,’” he said.