The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came out Thursday in support of providing states with an additional $250 million in election security funding, an abrupt turnaround after more than a year of opposition by the Kentucky Republican on the issue.
McConnell announced his position in remarks on the Senate floor Thursday morning.
"I'm proud the financial services and the general government bill included a bipartisan amendment providing another $250 million from the administration . to help states improve their defenses and shore up their voting systems," McConnell said. "I'm proud to have helped develop this amendment and co-sponsor it in committee.
"That will bring our total allocation for election security - listen to this - to more than $600 million since fiscal 2008," he added.
Democrats hailed the news, but argued that more needs to be done.
Last August, Senate Republicans voted down an effort to direct an extra $250 million toward election security ahead of the 2018 midterms. At the time, only one Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, voted for the additional funds.
Senate Republicans, including McConnell, have also repeatedly blocked Democratic efforts to bring election security legislation to the floor, including measures that would have authorized funding to update voting equipment.
McConnell has defended Republican moves to block the bills by arguing that Congress and the Trump administration have already taken steps to combat foreign interference. Last year, for instance, Congress approved $380 million to improve election security systems. The Senate also passed legislation to bar people who have interfered with U.S. elections from obtaining visas to enter the United States.
But those efforts have fallen fall short of the $600 million in election security funding that a House-passed bill would have authorized.
Current and former Trump administration officials have continued to sound the alarm that more needs to be done: In his testimony before Congress in July, former special counsel Robert Mueller warned that foreign election interference efforts were happening "as we sit" in the hearing rooms.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's office said it was "significant" that McConnell and Republicans had "finally backed down" on the issue.
"After months of opposing efforts by Leader Schumer and Senate Democrats to pass meaningful legislation and increase federal funding to secure our elections, Senator McConnell and Senate Republicans have finally relented and taken a step in the right direction," Schumer's office said in a statement.
But the Senate's top Democrat warned that the $250 million is far from enough. "To be clear, Senate Democrats believe this new funding is not a substitute for passing the comprehensive bipartisan election security legislation that experts say is desperately needed," Schumer's office said.
Eric Rosenbach, a former Pentagon chief of staff who now directs Harvard's Defending Digital Democracy program, also praised the turnaround from McConnell, saying the initial funding was insufficient to arm states against possible intrusions from nation-state actors.
"It's a sign that even Mitch McConnell believes this is a serious issue," Rosenbach said in an interview, attributing the move less to pressure from Democratic lawmakers than to what he described as the plain fact that the nation's election infrastructure is insufficiently resilient. "Even McConnell needs to set politics aside and do what's right for the country."
McConnell, meanwhile, argued that the Trump administration "has made enormous strides to help states secure their elections without giving Washington new power to push the states around."
"That's how we continued the progress we saw in 2018, and that's exactly what we're doing," he said in his floor remarks. "This is exactly the kind of positive outcome that is possible when we stop posturing for the press and let Chairman Shelby and Senator Leahy conduct a bipartisan committee process."
The money that was allocated last spring has all been distributed to the states, which were given five years to spend it, according to Thomas Hicks, head of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
"Most of them have spent it on cybersecurity and new voting equipment, and we need more," Hicks said Tuesday at a symposium hosted by the Federal Election Commission on the topic of digital disinformation and threats to democracy.
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The Washington Post's Paul Kane and Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.