Senate expected to approve House-passed surveillance powers bill next week

Senators are expected to vote next week on House-passed legislation to extend the FBI’s surveillance powers, setting up a battle between civil libertarians who want to curtail the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and allies of the intelligence community and law enforcement.

The legislation will extend core surveillance powers of the lapsed USA Freedom Act: the power to collect business records relevant to a counterterrorism or counter espionage investigation; the authority to use roving wiretaps to track suspects; and the ability to surveil “lone wolf” suspects not connected to a known terrorist group or foreign power.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has told colleagues he plans to bring the House-passed bill to the floor next week and allow votes on three or four amendments, according to GOP lawmakers.

The amendments are expected to fail and the House bill is expected to advance to President Trump’s desk, although lawmakers caution there could be unexpected drama on the floor.

Senators will vote on three amendments to the House bill, which itself is a bipartisan reform compromise that would end the National Security Agency’s collection of bulk phone data and ban the collection of GPS and cellphone location data without warrants.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will get a vote on his amendment that would bar the FISA court from issuing warrants for American citizens and instead require law enforcement agencies such as the FBI to obtain a warrant from a normal court established under Article III of the Constitution.

Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will get a vote on their amendment to require the appointment of amicus curiae, or outside advisers, with expertise in privacy and civil liberties to advise the FISA court on surveillance warrants.  

Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) will get a vote on an amendment to bar law enforcement from obtaining internet browsing and search history without a warrant.

None of the three amendments are expected to win the 60 votes needed under rules for the vote, though lawmakers say there could be a surprise on the floor.

“FISA’s gonna be next week. I think there will be at least three amendments, maybe four,” Paul said Wednesday afternoon.

The junior Kentucky senator touted his amendment as a response to the FBI’s surveillance of President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a controversy that fired up conservatives and put the nation’s top law enforcement agency under scrutiny.

“That’s the only thing that actually makes it so that what happened to Trump never happens to another candidate, Republican or Democrat,” he said.

Paul said the House-passed surveillance powers bill will be the base legislation and is likely to pass unamended. But he said the debate over strengthening civil liberties provisions is worth having anyway.

“I think they’ll start with the House bill and we’ll have some amendment votes. I think leadership probably presumes they can beat them all, and, I don’t know, they usually do. We’ll see what happens. But I think it’s an important debate to have, and I will encourage the president to veto it if it still allows Americans to be abused in FISA court,” Paul said.  

Lee said the House legislation might not have enough votes to pass the Senate unless it is amended.

Lee said he thinks the bill has a good chance of passing but warned “some of that might depend on whether we adopt amendments.”

“If none of the amendments are adopted, I think it gets tougher to pass it,” he said.

Lee explained his amendment “allows for the appointment of an amicus curiae any time there is a sensitive investigation going on, including a number of things, but including things like investigation involving a church, synagogue, mosque, media establishment, political office or candidate.”

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) confirmed Wednesday the House-passed bill will come to the floor next week and has a good chance of passing.  

“I think we’ll be moving on it on next week,” he said.

Thune said “we’ll see” whether the amendments pass, adding “I suspect that in the end, hopefully, the product will be the House bill.”

“You never know until you have the votes,” he cautioned.

Jordain Carney contributed.  

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump FISA John Thune Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Patrick Leahy Rand Paul Ron Wyden Steve Daines

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