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What can Congress actually do about Russia and the election hacks?

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What can Congress actually do about Russia and the election hacks?

WATCH | There's a battle brewing on Capitol Hill over Russia's alleged involvement in the 2016 election. Lawmakers are calling for a swift investigation, but Donald Trump and his team say there isn't enough evidence to support one. So what can Congress actually do about the hackings? 

What can Congress do? 

Without the approval of the White House... not much. Congress can draw up a plan for retaliation against Russia with recommendations for agencies like the State Department, Treasury and DHS to place new economic sanctions on the Kremlin or take other actions. 

But without a nod from the president, administrative agencies are unlikely to retaliate. Both Donald Trump and his pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, have signaled they aren't in favor of new sanctions on Russia.

Sen. Lindsey Graham has already hinted at more sanctions. 

Are you worried about whether or not Russia influence the 2016 election?

Power in publicity 

So why are lawmakers calling for these investigations if the White House isn't on board? 

"The power of the Congress in this instance would be in the publicity that they could afford the issue," said Steve Billet, a professor of legislative affairs at George Washington University. 

So this is an instance where Congress can shift the spotlight to their hearings on the issue and assert its role as a check on the executive branch. 

This is an instance, even though the Republicans control both the presidency and the legislature, for the Congress to reassert its role as the first branch of government and to indeed conduct a rigorous and vigorous investigation of this particular issue.
Steve Billet

Different types of investigations

How much publicity the probe can get depends on the type of investigation. House Democrats are demanding an independent investigation into the matter. That investigation would be conducted by bipartisan officials outside of Congress, much like the 9/11 commission. 

But experts say it's more likely the Senate will have control over an investigation. 

A select committee is more public

A growing group of Senators, including Armed Forces Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), is calling for the formation of a select committee to specifically investigate efforts by foreign powers to meddle in U.S. elections. 

A select committee would be more open to the public. The committee would have to release a report of its findings, and both Democrats and Republicans on the committee would have the power to call witnesses. 

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer joined the call for a select committee. 

Partisan committee investigation

Some Republicans want to keep the investigation contained to existing Senate committees, particularly armed services, and intelligence. 

If that happens, the Republican chairmen of those committees get the final say on who gets subpoenaed and what information gets released to the public. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell maintains that the standing committees are "fully capable" of handling the probe.

Swaying public opinion

More than half of Americans say they are concerned about Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, according to anational  NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll

This weekend, Trump's Chief of Staff Reince Priebus signaled Trump would be willing to accept that Russia was behind the hacks if U.S. intelligence community leaders could get on the same page.

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