This week: Senate balances surveillance fight with growing coronavirus concerns

Bonnie Cash

Senators are skipping a planned one-week recess to try to finish two legislative items: A surveillance bill and passage of the House coronavirus legislation. 

The Senate had been expected to be out of town this week, instead senators are set to return on Monday afternoon. The House is out after a middle-of-the-night vote early Saturday on the coronavirus package negotiated between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. 

The bill includes provisions that bolster unemployment insurance and guarantee that all Americans can get free diagnostic testing for the coronavirus. It also creates a national paid sick leave program through this year requiring employers with fewer than 500 workers as well as government employers would have to provide two weeks of paid sick leave.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predicted that a bipartisan majority of the chamber would want to move “swiftly” to pass a second coronavirus package, after Congress passed an initial $8.3 billion earlier this month.

“Senators will need to carefully review the version just passed by the House. But I believe the vast majority of Senators in both parties will agree we should act swiftly to secure relief for American workers, families, and small businesses,” he said in a statement shortly after the House vote. 

Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) quickly urged for the Senate to take up the House bill as passed. 

“First, Leader McConnell with the crisis we have, as the death today in New York shows, Leader McConnell should never have skipped town should never have let the Senate recess. We should have passed this bill late last night just as the House did. Fortunately, we are coming back Monday and Leader McConnell and our friends on the Republican side should pass the bill as is. It has broad support, got the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans in the House,” Schumer said during a press conference in New York. 

But the bill is facing several snags that could slow its path to President Trump’s desk. 

First, the House is expected to have to clear technical changes to the coronavirus package. That is expected to take place this week by unanimous consent. 

Secondly, the Senate is currently debating a surveillance bill, which is expected to get an initial procedural vote on Monday night. McConnell would need the consent of every senator to move from that bill to the coronavirus package, or to skip over other procedural hurdles and clear the House-passed coronavirus quickly. 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) urged his colleagues to let the coronavirus package pass on Monday, which would take cooperation from all 100 senators. 

“FISA needs to be carefully reviewed. That takes time. That can wait. The emergency response to #coronavirus should be the first order of business in the Senate tomorrow. There is no reason for this to take days & days,” he tweeted. 

But there are already calls from some senators to make changes to the House passed bill, or scrap it altogether. 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) signaled his opposition to the House bill over concerns that that the paid sick leave provision would harm small businesses. 

“I hope the Senate will approach this with a level head and pass a bill that does more good than harm – or, if it won’t, pass nothing at all. The president and states already have adequate authority and funding to address the current situation,” he said in a statement. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) added in a tweet that he was hoping to include additional small business protections into the House-passed bill. Any changes by the Senate would bounce the bill back to the House, which is out of town for the week. 

The potential hold ups for the legislation comes as the spread of the coronavirus is upending day-to-day life on Capitol Hill. 

A second Capitol Hill staffer, this time in the Rep. David Schweikert’s office, was confirmed to have tested positive for the coronavirus. The news sparked another round of congressional office closures, with several lawmakers already announcing that their staffs are working remotely. 

This week will also mark the first full work week after new restrictions were placed on access to the Capitol. In addition to the temporary shuttering of tours, access to the Capitol or the congressional office buildings is now limited to members, staff, press and visitors on official business, with a cap on group size. 

The extra measures on Capitol Hill comes as Washington, D.C. also placed new restrictions over the weekend and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance including recommending canceling any events with more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. 

“This recommendation does not apply to the day to day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning or businesses,” the guidance adds. 

Capitol Hill staff have tried to ramp up efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including encouraging offices to practice “social distancing” and an uptick in hand sanitizer machines. 

But lawmakers are still keeping close quarters with both staff, reporters and each other, underscoring the heightened risk in the Capitol. Of particular concern is the advanced age of many lawmakers. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) urged the Senate to pass both of its outstanding legislative agenda items by unanimous consent an event that would only require two senators—one to preside over the chamber and one to make the request. 

“Given the fact that we can and should pass the Coronavirus package, and any subsequent recommended bipartisan fixes to it, by UC immediately, your decision to call us back to Washington this week is unnecessary and puts many innocent people at risk,” the No. 2 Senate Democrat said. 

“Demanding that those Senators not currently in self quarantine take unnecessary flights exposing themselves and others; requiring our staffs to return to the Capitol and then have all of us return to our families makes no sense in light of the President’s emergency declaration,” he continued. 


First on deck for the Senate’s agenda is House’s legislation to reauthorize a handful of provisions under the USA Freedom Act and make some reforms to the surveillance court. 

The Senate’s debate comes after privacy hawks were able to throw up procedural roadblocks to passing the bill quickly last week, forcing the authorities to lapse on Sunday night. 

The bill, which passed the House with bipartisan support last week, extends two USA Freedom Act provisions related to “roving” wiretaps, allowing law enforcement to follow an individual across devices, and lone wolf terrorists — people who might be inspired by, but not directly linked to, a terrorist organization.

The bill would end a controversial call records program but reforms and reauthorizes other parts of Section 215, which allows the government to request “tangible things” relevant to a national security investigation.

But opponents argue it does not go far enough to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, or FISA, Court. 

The court, which has been a target of both progressives and libertarian-minded Republicans for years, has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz’s finding of 17 significant inaccuracies and omissions in the warrant applications related to Trump campaign associate Carter Page. 

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) tried to get a 45-day extension of the USA Freedom provisions along with a guarantee of amendment votes on the House-passed bill but Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) blocked his request. 

McConnell warned late last week that if opponents forced a lapse it would only be temporary, predicting the House bill will eventually pass the Senate. 

Lee and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are trying to get Trump to oppose the House bill and veto it if it reaches his desk in its current form. Trump railed repeatedly against the Obama-era FBI and Justice Department arguing that they “spied” on his campaign. 

Trump has largely stayed tight lipped about the House bill, except acknowledging that some have urged him to veto it. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters on Friday night that Trump told him he would support the bill. A top strategist for Paul quickly replied to the news on Twitter with “that’s funny. That’s not what I heard.” 

Tags Chuck Schumer David Schweikert Dick Durbin Donald Trump Josh Hawley Kevin McCarthy Marco Rubio Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Rand Paul Richard Burr Ron Johnson Steven Mnuchin

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