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WASHINGTON (AP) — With no firm conclusions yet on whether President Donald Trump's campaign may have coordinated with Russia, the Senate intelligence committee could delay answering that question and issue more bipartisan recommendations early next year on protecting future elections from foreign tampering.
Recommendations on how to counter the threat from attempted election hackers could be the first written product from congressional committees examining Russian interference into the 2016 election that put Trump in the White House. An early bipartisan report could be an attempt to boost confidence in the panel's probe, as lawmakers worry that other issues could be lost if they are not able to agree on the most anticipated questions like collusion.
A new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows more than half of Americans have expressed skepticism about multiple congressional investigations, with just 13 percent saying they're very or extremely confident they will be fair and impartial.
There has been concern from both Democrats and Republicans that if members can't agree, the final reports will be dismissed by an already skeptical, partisan public.
"The more bipartisan it is, the more it will be believed," said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, of a final report.
Warner has worked closely with the committee's Republican chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, who said in an interview Wednesday that he is considering the early report, which could also include other areas of consensus among senators. A final report addressing collusion would come later in the year.
Despite hesitation from Trump on the issue, most members of Congress agree with U.S. intelligence assessments that the Russians interfered. There also is consensus on the need to tighten voting security after the Department of Homeland Security notified several states of attempts to hack their systems. Next year's congressional primaries begin in early spring.
"We would have an additional report, if not more," Burr said. "But I think it's reasonable to believe we could take everything that we have concluded, if we've got buckets we've concluded, election security recommendations being one of them, why wouldn't we finish those and push them out the door?"
Warner agreed, saying "the idea of trying to get recommendations out early in the new year around elections, where I think there is very broad consensus, makes a lot of sense."
The committee, along with the House intelligence committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, since early this year has been investigating the Russian interference and whether Trump's campaign was in any way involved. That question of collusion may not be definitively answered at all in Congress, as lawmakers are unlikely to agree on it.
Burr said the panel has started broad organization of a final report, but suggested the final product is more likely to be a series of findings, rather than a firm conclusion on whether there was collusion.
He said committee members will likely lay out the facts, "but from a standpoint of taking a vote on some list of conclusions, I'm not sure we're going to do that."
It's unclear whether the reports could be pre-empted in any way by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is also investigating the interference and has the ability to prosecute, unlike Congress. Mueller's probe has moved rapidly, and his investigators have finished interviewing the current and former White House officials they had initially requested to speak to, White House lawyer Ty Cobb said Thursday.
While members of both the House and Senate intelligence committees have repeatedly said they hope their final reports are bipartisan, it's unlikely that all members of either committee will agree that collusion did or did not occur. Burr and Warner said in October that the question was still open.
"Any report like this, there will be people who say I wish it said more, I wish it said less," said Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, a Republican member of the Senate intelligence committee. Lankford says he thinks the Russia investigation will mirror investigations into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with "conspiracy theories for decades, and saying oh my gosh, 'what if'? And you can definitely 'what if' it to death."
The leaders of the House probe, Republican Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, have also said they are hoping for a bipartisan final report. But partisan tensions have run high on that panel, as some Republicans have pushed to wrap it up and Democrats have said there is much more to do.
Florida Rep. Tom Rooney, one of several Republicans leading the House probe, said that if the panel issues two different partisan reports, "there's going to be a cloud over the entire investigation."
If the two parties can't agree, Rooney said, "then basically the entire process will probably be thrown out the window, because people will go to their respective corners, and all of the work that we did, and the things that we probably could agree on, will probably get lost in that wash as well."
Rooney wouldn't predict what a final conclusion will be, but said "every single witness we've interviewed has been consistent on what they have testified to."
It's unclear if the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has also investigated the meddling, will have a final report. The committee chairman, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, hasn't yet said.
One Democratic member of that panel, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, says he hopes to see a conclusion, though he acknowledged that ultimately voters will have to process much of the information on their own.
"Ultimately, the American public is going to be the jury here," Blumenthal said.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.
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