After months of obstruction that led Democrats to brand him “Moscow Mitch,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has reversed course and is now backing $250 million in new federal funding for election security measures to defend against hostile foreign actors like Russia.
On the Senate floor Thursday, McConnell introduced the funding amendment that would help states “improve their defenses and shore up their voting systems” ahead of the 2020 election. Completing the 180-degree turn, McConnell announced he is now a “proud” co-sponsor of the funding.
Democrats reacted to the GOP leader’s reversal with palpable relief. “Thank God, he has seen the light,” Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the chamber floor. “We need more money for election security; ask election officials, Democrat or Republican, throughout the country.”
The nation’s vulnerability to ongoing foreign meddling was highlighted, in chilling fashion, during the testimony of Robert Mueller to congress in July. “It wasn’t a single attempt,” the former special counsel told Congress of Russian meddling. “They’re doing it as we sit here.”
Despite the specter that Russia’s 2016 interference was just a prelude to more sophisticated and perhaps more damaging attacks in 2020, McConnell had been obstinate in his refusal to act, leaving many with the impression that the Republican leader was unconcerned that Vladimir Putin could again intervene to boost Trump’s election prospects, or that McConnell even welcomed such interference.
The senate majority leader has notoriously thick — one could even say turtle-shell-like — skin. He’s proudly said he considers himself the “grim reaper” for progressive Democratic policy priorities. But the moniker “Moscow Mitch” clearly rankled him. In late July, he took to the Senate floor to decry “hyperventilating hacks” for suggesting that he was “unpatriotic, un-American and essentially treasonous.”
Yet until today, McConnell had been the immovable object impeding additional federal elections security funding. With the majority leader’s backing, the GOP-led Senate is expected to pass the funding measure, which will then have to be reconciled with a competing House measure that proposes $600 million in funding. Any elections security appropriation could still face a veto by President Trump.
While increased funding could be a boon to state and local elections officials, policymakers on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns that the funding needs direction and oversight. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) cautioned Thursday that many states have left 2018 elections-security appropriations unspent.
In a Senate report on Russian interference and elections security released earlier this summer, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) argued that federal officials need to be on a war footing with regards to elections security. “America is facing a direct assault on the heart of our democracy by a determined adversary,” Wyden wrote. “We would not ask a local sheriff to go to war against the missiles, planes and tanks of the Russian Army. We shouldn’t ask a county election IT employee to fight a war against the full capabilities and vast resources of Russia’s cyber army. That approach failed in 2016 and it will fail again.”
Wyden continued: “The federal government’s response to this ongoing crisis cannot be limited offers to provide resources and information, the acceptance of which is voluntary. If the country’s elections are to be defended,” he concluded, “Congress must also establish mandatory, nation-wide cybersecurity requirements.”