WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House on Thursday eliminated new funding for states to strengthen election security, drawing protests from Democrats who said Republicans are not doing enough to prevent Russian meddling.
"The Russians attacked our democracy. They will be back, and we are not ready," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. "The president is unwilling to meet this challenge, but we must be willing to meet the challenge."
Quigley and other Democrats blasted President Donald Trump for failing to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin at this week's summit in Helsinki and said Republicans were not taking threats against the integrity of U.S. elections seriously enough. Democratic lawmakers erupted into chants of "USA! USA!" during the debate, which came as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said she has not seen evidence that Moscow had tried to help elect Trump.
"I haven't seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party," Nielsen said Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, adding that Russia is attempting to "cause chaos on both sides."
Trump has made shifting statements on whether he agrees with the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. When asked Wednesday if Russia is still targeting the United States and its midterm elections, Trump responded "no," but White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later said Trump was saying "no" to answering more questions.
Quigley's election security amendment would have extended funding for a state grant program overseen by the federal Election Assistance Commission. Congress approved $380 million in the current budget for the program, which is intended to help states strengthen election systems from hacking and other cyberattacks.
Democrats want to approve a similar amount through 2019, but Republicans say money from the current program is still available to states and new spending is not needed.
House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said Congress has already spent more than $3.5 billion on election security since the contested 2000 election. States still have money left from the current $380 million appropriation, and lawmakers have not been made aware of any new requests for more money as the November midterm elections approach, he said.
Sessions called the Democrats' argument a "shrewd political shenanigan that has no merit to it."
The amendment was defeated, 182-232, as the House debated a broader spending bill.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said Republicans' refusal to spend more money on election security "represents nothing less than unilateral disarmament" against Russia, citing the U.S. intelligence community's finding that Russia intervened in the 2016 election and charges brought by the Justice Department against Russian officials for hacking Democratic groups.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat, depicted the vote on election security grants as a defense of U.S. democracy, citing a comment by National Intelligence Director Dan Coats that warning lights about cyber threats to the U.S. are "blinking red" in a manner similar to those before the 9/11 attacks.
"The flashing red light calls us to action!" Hoyer thundered. "Surely we can rise above pandering to party and Putin to act on behalf of our freedom and our security." Democrats broke out in chants of "USA! USA!" as Hoyer spoke.
The House approved the overall spending bill, 217-199. It includes nearly $59 billion for the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Treasury Department.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said the bill funds vital programs that make Americans safer, protect environmental resources and create jobs, especially in small businesses. The bill also provides money to fight the opioid epidemic, stop cyberattacks and fight devastating wildfires, he said.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said the bill "fails the American people" and puts the environment and public health at risk. The measure cuts funding for the EPA, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Endangered Species Act, while limiting federal action on climate change and thwarting EPA efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, she said.
The measure now goes to the Senate.