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 TrumpBiden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic On The Money: Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban | Trump attorney says he will fight release of tax returns Lack of transatlantic cooperation on trade threatens global climate change goals 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 ThuneGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Key Senate Republican praises infrastructure deal Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 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 PelosiOvernight Health Care: Average daily COVID infections topped last summer's peak, CDC says | US reaches 70 percent vaccination goal a month after Biden's target | White House says CDC can't renew eviction ban Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban Co-workers called FBI after alleged Capitol Hill rioter bragged about Jan. 6, officials say 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 McCarthy58 percent say Jan. 6 House committee is biased: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE (R-Calif.) has been negotiating with Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse bundling is bad for deliberation CBC presses Biden to extend eviction moratorium Top House Democrats call on Biden administration to extend eviction moratorium 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 NadlerBiden backs effort to include immigration in budget package Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Britney Spears's new attorney files motion to remove her dad as conservator MORE (D-N.Y.) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffA new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign Officers offer harrowing accounts at first Jan. 6 committee hearing Live coverage: House panel holds first hearing on Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Calif.), that would have extended most of the expiring provisions after Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenBiden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report House GOP blames Pelosi — not Trump — for Jan. 6 House erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role 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 HannityMeadows says Trump World looking to 'move forward in a real way' Psaki says Biden admin 'needs' Fox News in order to fight vaccine misinformation Ronny Jackson, former White House doctor, predicts Biden will resign MORE, argued that the FBI “weaponized FISA” and “used it horribly.”

Trump met with several Republicans and Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Native Americans are targets of voter suppression too 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 McConnellOn The Money: Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban | Trump attorney says he will fight release of tax returns Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate McConnell warns Democrats against 'artificial timeline' for infrastructure deal 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 CollinsLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor 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 GrahamGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Graham says he has COVID-19 'breakthrough' infection Graham, Cuellar press Biden to name border czar MORE (R-S.C.).

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on 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.