Three other Republicans did not vote: Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), who chairs the Intelligence Committee, Jeff Flake (Ariz.) who is traveling in Africa, and John McCain (Ariz.), who is in Arizona receiving treatment for a serious form of brain cancer. All four of those Republicans have been critical of President Trump’s refusal to prioritize a more robust response to resist foreign government interference in future election cycles.
The Senate vote comes just one day after Facebook revealed that it had uncovered a complex disinformation operation geared toward the midterm elections, at least some of which appears to be directed by known Russian government-sponsored operatives.
It also comes barely one week after Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) revealed that she had been targeted by a Russian hacking campaign that tried, but failed, to compromise her Senate computer network. McCaskill, a conservative Democrat, is running for reelection in a state that heavily favored Trump in 2016.
The vote also echoes a similar experience in the House, where Republican lawmakers killed a similar effort to attach election security funds to an appropriations bill last month, on a party-line vote.
Members of the GOP have argued that the extra funds are not necessary, as Congress has only recently approved $380 million in grants to help improve election security in 2018. Although there is some bipartisan consensus that $380 million is not enough to stave off every threat, several Senate Republicans have said that there should be an assessment of how states are using those funds before the federal government throws more money at the problem.
“It is far too early to add another quarter billion dollars . . . when we don’t know how the first $380 million has even been spent,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
The vote makes it highly unlikely that Congress will approve any more funds for countering election influence in advance of the midterm elections, despite an ongoing debate in the body over how to counter potential cyberthreats.
Calls for increasing mandatory sanctions against Russia have gone unheeded, as Senate leaders argue for caution, patience and a series of hearings to determine the precise nature of punitive measures that are warranted.
At the same time, a general bipartisan clamor from lawmakers to urge the president to take a tougher line against Russia appears to have caused Trump to edit the comments he made in Helsinki suggesting he might trust Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of election interference over the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community — but not resulted in any orders for action to shore up U.S. cyberdefenses.
On Wednesday, Trump resumed his attacks on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe, calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who has recused himself from such matters — to shut down the investigation.