Surveillance deal elusive as deadline looms

Surveillance deal elusive as deadline looms
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers are struggling to come up with a deal to extend expiring intelligence programs.

With Congress out of session until Monday, lawmakers now have just four working days to get legislation through both chambers and to President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee MORE’s desk by the March 15 deadline.

How that gets done, or what a final bill would like, remains unclear as the surveillance fight has sparked deep political and policy divisions on both sides of the aisle and in the House and Senate.


Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDemocrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill Senate GOP will force clerks to read bill to delay COVID-19 relief vote Parliamentarian strikes down Pelosi priority in aid package MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, acknowledged that debate over expiring provisions in the USA Freedom Act, as well as whether to tackle broader surveillance reforms, was an open question this late in the game.

“I think, as you know, we’re not all in the same place,” Thune said. “I would say the consensus position in the conference is that everybody wants to explore reforms … the question is what’s the best way to get that done.”

In the House, leadership is trying to quietly negotiate a larger deal that they believe could get through the House before they leave town on Thursday.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Democrats deals to bolster support for relief bill | Biden tries to keep Democrats together | Retailers fear a return of the mask wars Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Biden urges Democrats to advocate for rescue package MORE (D-Calif.) said she is pushing for a reauthorization, not just an extension, of the three expiring provisions that deal with roving wiretaps, lone wolf surveillance and a controversial records program that allows the government to request phone metadata.

“We have to have a reauthorization,” Pelosi told reporters. “We're having our own negotiations within our own group, but also among the Democrats and vis a vis the Republicans.”

She said she is “hoping” they will have a bill ready for a floor vote next week.


House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill Parliamentarian strikes down Pelosi priority in aid package Democrats snipe on policy, GOP brawls over Trump MORE (R-Calif.) has been negotiating with Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse Democrats introduce bill providing citizenship to Dreamers On The Money: Democrats deals to bolster support for relief bill | Biden tries to keep Democrats together | Retailers fear a return of the mask wars Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief MORE (D-Md.), on a potential agreement, though McCarthy told reporters on Thursday that he was still waiting to hear back from his counterparts on the latest GOP offer.

“I would like to … get us to a point where we can find some compromise, find some reforms. I believe that we can get there. We have been talking with Steny Hoyer on the Democrats in the appropriate committees. We have made ideas across to them,” McCarthy said.

A Democratic leadership aide said they responded to the GOP offer on Thursday “and staff from the committees and leadership are continuing to meet.” Hoyer described the talks as “ongoing.”

The House Judiciary Committee last week pulled a bill, negotiated by Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse sets vote for George Floyd police reform bill Jim Jordan calls for House Judiciary hearing on 'cancel culture' House Judiciary split on how to address domestic extremism MORE (D-N.Y.) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHouse Democrats want to silence opposing views, not 'fake news' White House defends not sanctioning Saudi crown prince over Khashoggi What good are the intelligence committees? MORE (D-Calif.), that would have extended most of the expiring provisions after Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenCurator estimates Capitol art damage from mob totals K Architect of the Capitol considering display on Jan. 6 riot Lawmakers say they are 'targets,' ask to boost security MORE (D-Calif.) threatened to force votes on several amendments related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Schiff said negotiators have "considerably narrowed the gap," but "have more work to do." He declined to provide specifics.

"I certainly hope we can get a deal by next week, but I don't know,” Nadler added.

Progressives and libertarian-minded GOP lawmakers have warned for years that they do not believe the FISA court provides enough transparency or privacy protections for individuals targeted for surveillance.

But those concerns about surveillance abuse found a broader audience among Republicans after Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” as part of the warrants for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Hoyer said both sides had “agreed on a number of items,” but warned that Horowitz’s report had “nothing to do with” the USA Freedom provisions that were set to expire.

“The focus on a non-related … issue is slowing up this process. And I would hope that in the coming days, because the 15th is upon us, we come to an agreement,” Hoyer said.

Trump, during an interview Wednesday night with Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityGrenell hints at potential California gubernatorial bid Cruz blames criticism of Cancun trip on media 'Trump withdrawal' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Tanden's odds plummet to lead OMB MORE, argued that the FBI “weaponized FISA” and “used it horribly.”

Trump met with several Republicans and Attorney General William BarrBill BarrMajority of Republicans say 2020 election was invalid: poll Biden administration withdraws from Connecticut transgender athlete case Justice Department renews investigation into George Floyd's death: report MORE at the White House this week to try to break the stalemate over the path forward on the expiring intelligence provisions. Barr and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGarland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks DOJ declined to take up Chao ethics probe Trump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC MORE (R-Ky.), who also attended the meeting, have backed a “clean” reauthorization of the expiring programs.


McConnell told reporters that his “preference” would be to extend the expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act without making any changes.

“But there are differences among my members and among the Democrats on the way forward. Whether we can resolve those and pass new legislation is unclear,” McConnell said during a weekly leadership press conference.

The meeting with Trump made clear that broader FISA reforms were inevitable, according to attendees.

“I think we stand with the president in this,” Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsGeorgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan Perdue rules out 2022 Senate bid against Warnock MORE (R-Ga.), who was in the meeting, told Fox News. “As President Trump has said, this should not happen to anybody.”

But locking in broad surveillance reforms before the March 15 deadline would be a significant lift, according to lawmakers. The House and Senate already have other legislation scheduled for the floor next week, including a mammoth energy bill in the Senate and a war powers resolution in the House.

Some lawmakers are warning they will need to pass a short-term extension, ranging from a month to three months, to buy themselves more time to negotiate the larger surveillance reforms.


“I don’t think … you’re going to have a meeting of the minds about what a statue looks like” before the deadline, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHere's who Biden is now considering for budget chief House Democratic leaders back Shalanda Young for OMB after Tanden withdrawal The Memo: Is Trump mounting a comeback — or finally fading? MORE (R-S.C.).

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate coronavirus bill delayed until Thursday Democrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill Bottom line MORE (R-Texas), a member of the Intelligence Committee, pitched a three-month extension, which would be similar to the 90-day provision that was put into a government funding bill last year.

“I think the only thing we’re talking about is a short-term reauthorization,” he said.

Trump told Republicans that he would not sign an extension of the expiring USA Freedom Act provisions without changes to the surveillance court, sources told The Hill. How long of a short-term patch Trump would be willing to sign remains unclear.

“I think that will be one of the uncertain aspects on all this: what the president would sign,” Thune said.

Mike Lillis contributed.