WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Thursday approved a spending bill that excludes new money for election security grants to states, provoking a furious reaction from Democrats amid a national controversy over Russian election interference.
The spending bill passed 217-199. Democrats’ bid to add hundreds of millions more in election spending was rejected 182-232 — as Republicans were unmoved by Democrats floor speeches decrying the funding changes and chanting “USA! USA!”
At issue is a grants program overseen by the federal Election Assistance Commission and aimed at helping states administer their elections and improve voting systems; Democrats want to continue grant funding through 2019, while Republicans say the program already has been fully funded.
Republicans argued strenuously in floor debate Wednesday that states had plenty of money from prior congressional allocations to spend on election improvements. But Democrats accused the Republicans of abetting President Donald Trump in his refusal to take a hard line against Russian President Vladimir Putin at this week’s summit in Helsinki.
“The American people should be very worried about the commitment of this president and his Republican allies in Congress to securing our elections,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island. “This is a party that has worked with this administration to undermine and minimize the investigation surrounding Russian interference in our presidential election.”
House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, termed such arguments from Democrats a “shrewd political shenanigan that has no merit to it.”
Sessions said Congress has fully funded election assistance grants that were created under the Help America Vote Act passed in the wake of the contested 2000 election. He said states still have money left from this year’s $380 million appropriation — and that lawmakers have not been made aware of any outstanding needs as the November midterm elections approach.
Congress has already spent more than $3.5 billion over the years, Sessions said, and could spend more depending on the conclusions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or how the November midterm elections go. But for now there’s no such need, he said.
“Maybe the special counsel will announce something in two weeks: ‘Oh, here’s what the Russian indictments really are.’ If we learn something, authorizing committees will come right back to it and we’ll go to it,” Sessions said. “But there is no new data or information, it’s at the end of 3 1/2 billion dollars, and there are no requests.”
Democrats dismissed the Republicans’ explanations, saying the need for election security funding has never been clearer in the wake of Trump’s summit with Putin, where the president appeared to give credence to Putin’s assertion that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election, despite the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that he did.
The controversy was inflamed anew Wednesday when Trump appeared to declare that Russia was no longer targeting the United States, contrary to the assertions of the intelligence community — although the White House later said the president was just saying “no” to further questions from the press.
Around the same time Trump was speaking at a Cabinet meeting at the White House, about a dozen Democrats lined up on the House floor to take turns demanding a vote on an amendment to add $380 million in election security funding to the 2019 spending bill.
Republicans denied each request, and Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Kentucky, who was occupying the chair, at one point pounded his gavel to quiet the Democrats down.
“History is going to look back on the inaction of this Congress with great shame,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, fumed amid the theatrics.
But Republicans were unmoved.
“There is no crisis. There are funds available,” declared Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington.
The legislation under debate was a spending bill for government operations including the Treasury Department, the judiciary and related agencies, which is scheduled for a floor vote Thursday, packaged with a bill for spending on environment and interior programs.
Republicans say they did not include more money for Election Assistance Commission grants to states because they’ve already fully funded those grants, ending with the $380 million appropriated for the 2018 budget year, which has been doled out to states but not fully spent.
Democrats said states would ask for more money if Congress made more available and that the only reason they haven’t spent it all is because they only just received it in some cases.
The Senate’s version of the spending bill also did not include new election security money, but it passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on a bipartisan basis anyway.
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