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Bipartisan group of senators pushes to sanction Russia over midterm meddling

WASHINGTON – With less than 100 days until the midterm elections, a bipartisan group of senators offered Thursday a bill that would impose tougher sanctions on Russia if it continues to interfere in U.S. elections.

The bill would create new criminal penalties for anyone who targets election systems and slap sanctions on political figures, oligarchs, and others who engage in "illicit and corrupt activities" on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The bill's co-sponsors are Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Democrats Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire

The legislation also pushes back against President Donald Trump's attacks on NATO, requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate for the U.S. to leave the military alliance, which includes Canada and most of Europe. 

Trump has questioned – off and on – whether Russia really meddled in the 2016 presidential election and whether NATO is still useful to the U.S.

However, Dan Coats, Trump's director of national intelligence, has said that "the warning lights are blinking red again" for Russian interference in this year's elections. And John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser, sent a letter Thursday to Senate Democrats saying that Trump is doing more to defend U.S. election systems from foreign attacks than any prior administration.

Congress voted last summer to impose sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, but the bill's six sponsors of the bill say the penalties weren't tough enough and won't deter Putin from meddling in this year's elections.

"Our goal is to change the status quo and impose crushing sanctions and other measures against Putin’s Russia until he ceases and desists meddling in the US electoral process," Graham said.

Graham said the sanctions and other measures in the bill "are the most hard-hitting ever imposed – and a direct result of Putin’s continued desire to undermine American democracy."

The bill's strong bipartisan support means it has a good chance of passing in the Senate. It's not clear whether it will be introduced in the House or whether Trump would sign it if Congress approves the legislation.

In addition to the sanctions, the bill would allow the Justice Department to bring federal charges against anyone who hacks a voting system used in a federal election.

In 2016, Russian hackers tried to breach election systems in at least 21 states, according to homeland security officials. Although no actual votes were changed, hackers broke into Illinois' voter registration database and stole some information. 

It's likely that the Russian hackers actually scanned the election systems of all 50 states for vulnerabilities, one Department of Homeland Security official told lawmakers last month.

Additionally, the bill would require the secretary of state to determine whether the Russian Federation meets the criteria for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. government imposes strict economic and trade sanctions on any country that sponsors terrorism.

The legislation also would make foreigners who interfere in U.S. elections ineligible for admission to the United States under federal immigration law.

"This bipartisan legislation sends a strong message of unity and deterrence against the Kremlin," Shaheen said.