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 TrumpFauci says his meetings with Trump have 'dramatically decreased' McEnany criticizes DC mayor for not imposing earlier curfew amid protests Stopping Israel's annexation is a US national security interest MORE’s desk.

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Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntWashington prepares for a summer without interns GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day 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 ShelbyHouse pushes back schedule to pass spending bills Top Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care GOP senators not tested for coronavirus before lunch with Trump 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJudd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not Montana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight Federal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members MORE (D-N.Y.) said on Monday about the growing price tag for emergency funding.

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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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US This week: Senate reconvenes as protests roil nation amid pandemic For city parks: Pass the Great American Outdoors Act now 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 PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US Judd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not Trump asserts his power over Republicans MORE (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyTop GOP lawmakers invite Blue Dogs to meet with China Task Force over coronavirus probe Key races to watch in Tuesday's primaries Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers 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 LeahyHouse punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  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 LofgrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers House punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate 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 NadlerHouse Democrats unveil measure to condemn police brutality House Democrats call on DOJ to investigate recent killings of unarmed black people  Gun control group rolls out House endorsements MORE (D-N.Y.), Lofgren and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffFlynn urged Russian diplomat to have 'reciprocal' response to Obama sanctions, new transcripts show The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers 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 BurrTrump asserts his power over Republicans FISA 'reform': Groundhog Day edition Rubio: Coronavirus conspiracy theories could be used in foreign election misinformation campaigns MORE (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump asserts his power over Republicans Expanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks 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 BarrWilliam Pelham BarrIt wasn't just religious liberty that Chief Justice Roberts strangled The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US Trump says he will designate antifa a terrorist organization 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 ThuneFrustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US death toll nears 100,000 as country grapples with reopening GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill 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.”