Security Surveillance

Senate GOP punts on surveillance bill amid coronavirus crisis

Senate GOP punts on surveillance bill amid coronavirus crisis

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. | Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

The Senate on Monday unanimously adopted a short-term extension of key federal surveillance programs that expired on Sunday night — a move that allows the chamber to more rapidly consider legislation addressing the economic impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scrapped an initial procedural vote Monday night on a House-passed bill that would reauthorize now-expired provisions of the 2015 USA Freedom Act and alter the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Instead, McConnell and his leadership team worked out a deal with civil libertarian hard-liners who oppose that House bill, including Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), on a 77-day extension of the surveillance powers. As part of the agreement, Lee and Paul also secured a package of amendment votes on the House bill, which has the backing of Attorney General William Barr and leaders from both parties in the House.

“We shouldn’t have to wait until the moment when we’re on the eve of the expiration of some important legislation and where we have to wait for the president of the United States to weigh in and lean in,” Lee said. “From time to time, laws require revision and review and reform. That always necessarily requires amendments.”

Senators were under intense pressure to clear the legislative docket to allow for the chamber to quickly take up a bill intended to blunt the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak. The House is expected to send a final version to the Senate as early as Monday night.

Lee and Paul, for their part, vehemently oppose the House’s FISA bill, contending that it does not go far enough to reform law enforcement’s surveillance authority. But they said they would be willing to back a temporary extension of the provisions if Senate GOP leaders allow amendment votes on the House bill, which passed in the lower chamber last week with a bipartisan majority.

“They can do it the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is that they allow debate,” Paul told reporters.

Other senators indicated earlier Monday that they would support a temporary extension of the FISA powers out of concern that a prolonged lapse would hinder the U.S. intelligence community’s work.

“If the alternative is staying dark, I’ll take an extension,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters.

McConnell did not address the negotiations on Monday afternoon, only saying the House bill was the best path forward.

“It reauthorizes the tools, which our national security requires, while also imposing a number of new reforms, which basic accountability demands,” McConnell said.

“The Senate should not wait to act,” McConnell added. “I sincerely hope that even our colleagues who may wish to vote against the House bill will not make us prolong this brief lapse in authorities and that we will be able to get these tools back online this week.”

Last week, Lee attempted numerous times to secure unanimous consent for a short-term extension, with an agreement to vote on four amendments to the House-passed bill at a later date. But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) objected to Lee’s requests, saying it was unnecessary to drag out a debate over the FISA provisions.

Lee also spoke with President Donald Trump earlier that day and said the president told him he did not support the House bill. However, House Republicans indicated late last week that Trump does, in fact, support the legislation.

Three key FISA provisions lapsed on Sunday night after the Senate failed to reauthorize them before the deadline. The House bill addressed bipartisan concerns about possible overreach by the surveillance courts and ended an already deactivated National Security Agency program that allowed the organization to obtain, with judicial approval, Americans’ phone records in terror investigations.

The legislation strengthened privacy statutes and placed new restrictions on the FISA courts — inspired in part by Trump’s frequent complaints about his former campaign adviser, Carter Page, who was wiretapped as part of the U.S. government’s initial investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Marianne LeVine and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.