WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is backing calls for a probe into alleged Russian interference in US elections, telling reporters on Monday, "This simply cannot be a partisan issue."

"Obviously, any foreign breach of our cybersecurity measures is disturbing," McConnell said.

Rejecting calls for a select committee, McConnell said the Senate Intelligence Committee "is more than capable of conducting a complete review of this matter."

Just last week, McConnell and other US congressional leaders met with representatives from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in order to reassure the jittery Baltic nations that the US will honor its NATO commitment, despite comments made by President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail. 

"The Russians are not our friends," McConnell said.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Fountain Hills, Arizona, in March. The real-estate mogul on Monday unveiled his plans for countering terrorism.

Photo Credit: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The comments foreshadow potential fights over how far Congress will go to probe Russia's alleged interference in US elections and, by extension, Trump's Cabinet picks. Republicans over the weekend knocked Trump's likely but unconfirmed pick for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, for his close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tillerson's reported selection comes amid growing evidence, including a CIA report, that Russia hacked various systems in the US in an attempt to steer the election toward Trump. 

Trump dismissed the claims as "ridiculous" on "Fox News Sunday," adding: "I think it's just another excuse." On Monday, Trump tweeted, "Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!"

Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on Monday called  for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan commission to comprehensively investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"An attack against our election system is an attack on our very way of life and must not go unchallenged," said Feinstein, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain, R-Ariz., and panel member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., issued a joint statement with SASC Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., and incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, saying Russian interference in the election "should alarm every American."

"Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks," they said in the joint statement.

"This cannot become a partisan issue," they said. "The stakes are too high for our country. We are committed to working in this bipartisan manner, and we will seek to unify our colleagues around the goal of investigating and stopping the grave threats that cyberattacks conducted by foreign governments pose to our national security."

McCain has said his committee will conduct a review of the threat that the US faces from cyber attacks, with Graham at the helm.

On CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, McCain said of Trump's denials of Russian meddling, "I don't know what to make of it, because it is clear the Russians interfered. … The facts are stubborn things."

McCain said "in an ideal world," he would want to have a select committee investigate the allegations with leaders of the intelligence, foreign relations and armed services committees. Yet that would take a long time and negotiating, he said.

The controversy could cast a cloud over Tillerson's nomination. McCain expressed worries over Tillerson's apparent friendship with the Russian president.

"It's a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin and obviously they've done enormous deals together," McCain said. "That would color his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted about Tillerson: "Being a 'friend of Vladimir' is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState."

Meanwhile, Trump attacked the CIA over news it concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election on behalf of Trump, the Washington Post reported last week. The White House revealed that President Obama ordered intelligence agencies to conduct a "deep dive" into cyber attacks and foreign intervention into the 2016 election and deliver a report before he leaves office on Jan. 20.

"These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," the Trump transition team said of the US intelligence community in a unsigned press release. "The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It's now time to move on and 'Make America Great Again.'"

On Sunday, Trump also defended Tillerson by tweet: "Whether I choose him or not for 'State' - Rex Tillerson, the Chairman & CEO of ExxonMobil, is a world class player and dealmaker. Stay tuned!"

Some were troubled by Trump's break with the intelligence community. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, interviewed on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," on Monday said the relationship was now "beyond difficult."

"This is about as dark as I can imagine it to be," Hayden said. "In 48 hours, he said the intelligence community, on which he will rely, is incompetent, politicized, and frankly he didn't have a lot of time for them. That's not a winning formula for him."

House Homeland Security Committee member Peter King, R-N.Y., said he supports an investigation but said there is a "split opinion" within the CIA about Russian involvement.

"I think we can all agree if the Russians wanted to put a cloud over the election, the Russians wanted to disrupt the election, and I think the importance of an investigation was to see how far they went, what their purpose was, and what can we do to prevent it in the future," King said on MSNBC on Monday.

At least one US lawmaker is suggesting the Electoral College reject Trump as president for his refusal to say Russians interfered in the election: House Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes, D-Conn.

"What finally pushed me over the edge was when the president-elect of the United States criticized the CIA and the intelligence community," Himes said Monday on CNN's "New Day." "Can you imagine what the leaders in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran are thinking as they watch the next president of the United States delegitimize and criticize his own intelligence community and stand up for the defense of Russia, one of our prime adversaries."

Email:  jgould@defensenews.com

Twitter: @reporterjoe

Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.

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