Surveillance deal elusive as deadline looms
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 Trump’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 Thune (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 Pelosi (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 McCarthy (R-Calif.) has been negotiating with Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (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 Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), that would have extended most of the expiring provisions after Rep. Zoe Lofgren (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 Hannity, argued that the FBI “weaponized FISA” and “used it horribly.”
Trump met with several Republicans and Attorney General William Barr 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 McConnell (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 Collins (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 Graham (R-S.C.).
Sen. John Cornyn (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.