Senate standoff means surveillance programs to lapse

Bonnie Cash

Three soon-to-expire intelligence programs are set to temporarily lapse amid a standoff in the Senate. 

The House passed a bill on Wednesday that would pair a reauthorization of those programs with broader changes to the court associated with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). 

But quick passage of that bill hit a roadblock in the Senate on Thursday, with Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) threatening to block any attempt to clear the legislation and send it to President Trump’s desk. 

“Senate Republican leaders are trying to ram through fake FISA amendments without any real changes. I will object. I continue to stand with [Trump] in his reservations to this bill,” Paul tweeted Thursday. 

A GOP senator said that Lee had also placed a hold on the House bill, a procedural tactic that prevents it from quickly passing. 

That stalemate will kick the Senate’s final passage of the legislation into next week, guaranteeing a temporary lapse of the three provisions of the USA Freedom Act, a 2015 law that overhauled the nation’s surveillance programs, that are set to sunset on Sunday night. 

The Senate left town on Thursday until Monday. Even once they return, the House bill will still need to overcome a procedural hurdle and be subjected to dozens of hours of debate resulting in a days-long lapse. 

The Senate has been barreling for days toward a standoff over what to do about the expiring provisions, which touch on “roving” wiretaps that allow an individual to be tracked across multiple devices; lone wolf terrorists; and Section 215 of the post-9/11 Patriot Act. 

Opponents have argued that the House bill doesn’t do enough to make broader reforms to FISA. 


Libertarian-minded GOP senators and progressives have warned the surveillance court does not provide transparency and privacy protections. 

That concern found support among a broader swath of Republicans after Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found 17 examples of inaccuracies and omissions in the warrant applications regarding Trump campaign associate Carter Page. 

“They spied on the president of the United States. They used the apparatus of the U.S. government agencies to spy on then-candidate Donald Trump, now president of the United States. They did so in a way that was entirely predictable, entirely foreseeable, in some ways avoidable, if in fact we had the right laws on the books,” Lee said on Thursday. 

Paul and Lee have been working behind the scenes to try to convince Trump to veto the House bill if it reaches his desk. Trump appeared to tip his hat toward those conversations in a tweet on Monday, where he appeared to suggest that he was undecided on the House bill. 

“Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted ‘coup’ of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. 

A White House official told The Hill that the president is interested in significant FISA reforms but is “carefully listening” to the views of all Republicans.

“There is a lot of interest in the significant reform that conservatives drove to completion to address the abuses of FISA against him and other innocent members of the 2016 campaign,” the official said.

If Trump doesn’t come out against the House bill, it’s expected to have enough support to pass the Senate next week. That would leave Trump and a veto as the last chance for opponents to stop it.
The tensions over the intelligence programs boiled over on the Senate floor on Thursday afternoon as Lee tried several times to pass a 45-day extension along with a deal to vote on amendments to the House-passed bill. 

Lee was blocked at every turn by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who supports the House-passed deal. 

“I want to thank my colleague. He’s shown more interest in this bill today than he has ever in the history of tools that keep us safe,” Burr said.”I remember Paul Harvey on the radio. He always came on and said, ‘now for the rest of the story.’ Senator Lee has never supported this bill, never supported giving any of these authorities to law enforcement.” 

Morgan Chalfant contributed.

Tags CIA Donald Trump FISA intelligence community Mike Lee NSA Rand Paul Richard Burr
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