WASHINGTON -- Intent on avoiding a repeat of the 2000 presidential election debacle, the Senate has added $1 billion to the president's request for funds to carry out improvements in the national voting system.
"In a time when we are committing billions of dollars in federal resources to build democracies around the world, we simply cannot afford to shortchange our own," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., before the Senate voted 63-31 Thursday to waive budget caps and increase funds for election reform in fiscal year 2004 from $500 million to $1.5 billion.
Joining Dodd was Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, who said he found himself "in an extremely awkward position" in contesting the budget figure proposed by the president and agreed to by the Senate Appropriations Committee. "This, however, is that very rare instance which I believe warrants providing funding above that provided in the budget."
In all, 19 Republicans supported the increased funding, added to a $90 billion spending bill for Transportation and Treasury Department programs in the budget year that began Oct. 1.
Dodd and McConnell were lead Senate sponsors of the Help America Vote Act that President Bush signed into law last October. The measure approved the spending of $3.86 billion through 2005 to help states modernize voting technology, ensure that no eligible voter is turned away at the polls and reduce fraud.
But the amount actually approved for spending in the 2003 budget and requested for 2004 is $1 billion less than prescribed under the act, making it difficult, supporters of the Dodd amendment said, for states to prepare for the 2004 election.
"The cold reality is this," McConnell said. "We promised the American people that in the fall of 2004 we would have the mechanisms in place to dramatically improve the election system."
The provision was opposed by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., who said it both busts the budget and was unnecessary because there is still unused money in the pipeline from last year's budget.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, also opposed the amendment but said that before Congress goes out this year "we will have to provide this money and the Appropriations Committee will find some way to find it within the budget."
In the House, the second-ranked Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, R-Ohio, are also pressing the GOP leadership to find an extra $1.86 billion to fulfill payment of the entire $3.86 billion allowed under the law.
They noted that 27 states still use punch cards, the voting method that was the source of problems in the disputed Florida presidential election in 2000.
Ney, in an interview Friday, said he was pleased with the broad support shown in the Senate and hoped the final version of the Transportation bill would include the election funds. "If it doesn't get in there it has to get in somewhere. We have to have that money."
He said House Speaker Dennis Hastert was behind the effort to fully fund election reforms. "I would like to see the White House weigh in on this and support it."