House strikes last-minute surveillance deal

Greg Nash

House leaders on Tuesday struck an agreement to reauthorize a key surveillance bill, clinching a bipartisan deal on the contentious legislation just days before it’s set to expire.

The move follows months of hard-fought negotiations that found disagreements not only between the parties, but within them as well. 

Leaders in both parties say they expect the bill to pass through the House on Wednesday, sending it to the Senate with four days to spare before the March 15 expiration. 

The deal came together after negotiators launched an 11th-hour effort to mollify an unusual coalition of dissenting voices: liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, who had snarled the talks by insisting on additional privacy protections in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That put them at odds with those arguing that a clean reauthorization bill had a better chance of making it through the Senate.

Always controversial, the questions swirling around the government’s surveillance powers have pit national security hawks against proponents of stronger civil liberties. And the compromise unveiled Tuesday aims to balance those concerns delicately enough to win stamps of approval from both chambers.

“I am glad to say today we are again in concert, bringing legislation to rein in some of these abuses in a bipartisan matter,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday as he testified about the bill before the Rules Committee.   

If passed, the reauthorization bill would extend three expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act that touch on roving wiretaps, lone wolf surveillance and a controversial program that allows the U.S. government to request access to phone metadata.

The bill will also include more privacy protections.

“First, this bill ends the call details records program that began as a secret and unlawful surveillance project almost 20 years ago. Ends it,” Nadler said.

With the deadline looming, House leaders moved quickly to push the package through the House, with the Rules Committee voting Tuesday evening to send it to the floor. 

Still, the bill did not appear to appease some of the lawmakers pushing for sweeping reforms to the U.S. surveillance powers.

“I’m looking at it right now. Based on earlier drafts of it I don’t like it at all,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said on Tuesday.

The last minute scramble comes after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Nadler worked over recent weeks to win the support of Reps. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) — two Judiciary Democrats who have pushed for more privacy protections. Without congressional action, the government’s enhanced surveillance powers will expire on March 15. 

Lofgren sent the FISA reauthorization into a tailspin late last month after she threatened to force votes on several FISA-related amendments, which forced House Democrats to pull their bill in the Judiciary Committee and postpone a markup.

Aides said the package was written to maximize support from lawmakers of both parties, though it was unclear Tuesday evening if passage was a sure bet. Shortly before the Rules meeting was announced, Jayapal told The Hill she had some reservations about the state of the FISA negotiations.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I feel like a lot of things we thought we’d agreed to have changed.”

Nevertheless, the decision to move the FISA reauthorization bill to the Rules Committee indicated that members had negotiated to move the bill through. And it also came after party leaders on both sides had begun to express confidence this week that they were nearing a deal.

On Tuesday morning, Nadler had characterized the package as a “significant overhaul” of existing law and described the changes from his initial proposal as an improvement. 

The decision to hold a vote this week suggests that Democrats have moved past the possibility of passing a short-term extension to ensure the surveillance powers do not expire — although such a possibility could re-emerge again if Senate leaders face strong opposition to the bill.

Republicans too have faced an intra-party dispute over the legislation, as libertarian Republicans demand more protections, pitting them against GOP leaders who had hoped to keep the current laws largely intact.

While President Trump has said that he will not agree to a clean reauthorization bill — despite Attorney General William Barr and other GOP leaders initially supporting such a move — some libertarian members pushed for sweeping reforms. 

Trump and many GOP members have pointed to the use of a wiretap on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page during the 2016 election to push for additional FISA reforms.

Federal officials suspected Page of working as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia during the 2016 presidential election, particularly after he made a trip to the Kremlin in July of that year — when questions were already swirling about the campaign’s ties to Moscow.

They say the extensive review of the 2016 FISA process by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz aids their case. While Horowitz did not find evidence to suggest political bias impacted the FBI’s decision to open the counterintelligence probe and concluded that the FBI had an “authorized purpose” for the inquiry, he did find 17 “significant errors or omissions” in the surveillance warrant applications for Page, dating back to 2016.

House Republicans also were able to mostly come to agreements, particularly after Barr met with GOP leaders on Monday night.

“I think we’re in a very good place. This morning we brought back to the Democrats some other changes we would have to where we are in negotiations, hopefully we can get that done today and vote before the end of the week,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Tuesday.

“We want to make sure that whatever we do, especially when it comes to reforms that it works, that we are able to provide the usage of why we need FISA from the same time of the protections for every American.”

The negotiations largely appeared to be between the House and the White House, with many senators remarking throughout the day that they don’t know what deal is being struck.

“I have no idea what they are working on,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) remarked Tuesday.

Still, GOP senators expressed determination to make sure the surveillance authorities remain intact.

“We’ll certainly try and move it,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who noted he has not yet reviewed the contents of the FISA bill. “For us, it will depend on how many procedural roadblocks our members might want to throw up.”


Tags Adam Schiff Donald Trump Jerrold Nadler John Thune Kevin McCarthy Mike Lee Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Richard Burr William Barr Zoe Lofgren
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