Congress scrambles to finalize coronavirus funding, surveillance deals

Congress scrambles to finalize coronavirus funding, surveillance deals
© Bonnie Cash

Lawmakers are staring down a tight timeline on major legislation as they try to clear the deck before a mid-March break.

Congress has less than 10 working days to tackle both coronavirus funding and reauthorization of expiring surveillance provisions in the USA Freedom Act before they leave town on March 13.

Despite the urgency, there is no clear path for legislation to get through both chambers and to President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE’s desk.


Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntPower players play chess match on COVID-19 aid GOP to Trump: Focus on policy Low-flying helicopters to measure radiation levels in DC before inauguration MORE (R-Mo.), a member of leadership, said senators did not get clarity in a closed-door leadership meeting about how they would move the two forthcoming bills by next Friday.

"But I do think that we still expect the House to pass coronavirus this week. Though as the week goes on, it's likely late enough that we would do it next week," he said.

The House wants to vote on coronavirus funding this week. While they have not yet finalized an agreement, appropriators appear close.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyFinger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: GOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag | Company layoffs mount as pandemic heads into fall | Initial jobless claims drop to 837,000 GOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag MORE (R-Ala.) said the best-case scenario would be the House voting on Wednesday and the Senate the following day. But he stopped short of pledging they would have a deal finalized in time to do that.

A source familiar with the negotiations said they expected to have a deal on Tuesday and that the final figure would be between $7 billion and $8 billion.

“When it comes to Americans’ health, when it comes to our safety, when it comes to dealing with this problem head-on, skimping doesn’t make any sense at all. If there was ever something that’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, that’s it,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerTrump announces opening of relations between Sudan and Israel Five takeaways on Iran, Russia election interference Pelosi calls Iran 'bad actor' but not equivalent to Russia on election interference MORE (D-N.Y.) said on Monday about the growing price tag for emergency funding.


Congress is under increasing pressure to act to combat the coronavirus amid fears of a widespread outbreak in the United States. As of Monday, the virus had been detected in 10 states, and the first domestic deaths, both in Washington state, were announced over the weekend.

Congressional offices have been urged to update their pandemic plans, and Vice President Pence will join both the Democratic and Republican Senate caucus lunches on Tuesday to discuss the administration’s efforts.

“In regard to the Capitol, we’re in the process of determining exactly what precautions, if any, to take at the Capitol to protect those who work here and visit here,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Following debate, Biden hammers Trump on coronavirus | Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives | Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight | Landlords, housing industry sue CDC to overturn eviction ban Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight MORE (R-Ky.) told a group of reporters Monday.

Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told NBC News the virus has “now reached outbreak proportions and likely pandemic proportions.”

If the House votes by the end of the week on coronavirus funding, that would leave the Senate just a few days to address both the emergency spending and the expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act, a key intelligence measure. If the Senate wants to speed up consideration for either bill, leaders would need the consent of every senator; otherwise, each bill could eat up days of floor time.

One potential option would be to merge a short-term reauthorization of the USA Freedom Act into the coronavirus funding measure. But that idea has been shot down by both Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Following debate, Biden hammers Trump on coronavirus | Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives | Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight | Landlords, housing industry sue CDC to overturn eviction ban Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight MORE (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyRocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire Trump is out of touch with Republican voters on climate change The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Iran, Russia election bombshell; final Prez debate tonight MORE (R-Calif.). The White House has also signaled that it doesn’t want to bog down the coronavirus bill with unrelated items.

“It’s important that we deal with the first problems first,” said White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland, referring to the coronavirus.

He added that it’s important to “not get distracted on unrelated and unattached issues.”

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySchumer says he had 'serious talk' with Feinstein, declines to comment on Judiciary role Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, warned against airdropping in the surveillance fight over concerns that it could sink the coronavirus funding measure.

“That would be the biggest mistake we could make. It would make us look foolish,” Leahy said.

Neither chamber has made much headway into deciding how to extend, reform or end the three expiring intelligence provisions related to lone wolf surveillance, roving wiretaps and a controversial phone records program.

The House Judiciary Committee pulled a bill last week that would have reauthorized some of the expiring provisions after Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenWhy prevailing wage reform matters for H-1B visas Fears grow of voter suppression in Texas Business groups start gaming out a Biden administration MORE (D-Calif.) threatened to force votes on several broader changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerMarijuana stocks see boost after Harris debate comments Jewish lawmakers targeted by anti-Semitic tweets ahead of election: ADL Democrats shoot down talk of expanding Supreme Court MORE (D-N.Y.), Lofgren and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGreenwald slams Schiff over Biden emails on Fox Hillicon Valley: DOJ accuses Russian hackers of targeting 2018 Olympics, French elections | Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats | House Democrats slam FCC over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats MORE (D-Calif.), who negotiated a draft of the bill with Nadler, were expected to try to revive the bill.

Those talks have yet to bear fruit, and legislation introduced in the upper chamber by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrAs Trump downplayed the virus publicly, memo based on private briefings sparked stock sell-offs: NYT Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate Intel leadership urges American vigilance amid foreign election interference Intel officials say Iran, Russia seeking to influence election Senate Intel leaders warn of election systems threats MORE (D-Va.), which would end the call records program while extending the other two provisions, remains stuck in the Judiciary Committee.

"I would like to think we can get that extended before the deadline ... but we'll just have to see," Blunt said.

Part of the headache for leadership is that progressives, libertarian-minded lawmakers and a growing number of rank-and-file Republicans want to use the USA Freedom Act reauthorization to make broader changes to the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act after Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the surveillance applications regarding Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

But McConnell is supportive of extending the three provisions, as is Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump hasn't asked Barr to open investigation into Bidens, McEnany says Seattle, Portland, NYC sue Trump administration over threat to pull federal money Trump says he doesn't actually want Whitmer, Biden and Obama to be locked up despite chants MORE. One idea being floated is to extend the three provisions until 2022, though it’s unclear if that could get the 60 votes needed in the Senate to advance legislation.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFinger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight McConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session GOP power shift emerges with Trump, McConnell MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, floated between a three- to six-month extension to give Congress more time to strike a broader deal.

“I think everybody is sort of hoping that we could get this resolved,” he said. “But if we had to do that, I assume it would be a three- or six-month whatever to allow for some time to come together.”