Senate to vote on FISA authorities and critics’ proposals to curb surveillance powers
(CNN) — The Senate will begin voting Wednesday to extend three national security surveillance authorities that have lapsed for nearly two months after the House and Senate failed to agree on how to extend them in March while the coronavirus outbreak sent lawmakers scrambling out of Washington.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing forward with the bill the House approved in March to reauthorize the three surveillance authorities, over the strenuous objections of civil libertarians who say the bipartisan agreement struck in the House trampled over individual rights.
The Senate will take the votes on the first two of at least three amendments on Wednesday being offered by opponents of the surveillance authorities granted to federal law enforcement under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — or FISA. The amendments, which would provide additional curbs on the surveillance law, need 60 votes to pass, and Republican leaders are pushing for them to be rejected.
“I hope the Senate will be able to dispatch the amendments that we will consider and pass this important legislation on a bipartisan basis to keep the American people safe,” McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said on the Senate floor Monday.
The three amendments come from bipartisan critics of FISA. Sens. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, and Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, propose that targets of surveillance warrants receive additional legal protections before the FISA Court. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, has an amendment that would require a warrant for US citizens to be searched under FISA. And Montana Republican Steve Daines and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden are offering a measure to prevent the federal government from collecting internet browsing or search histories.
McConnell has also drafted two amendments that would alter the amendments on internet searches and FISA court legal protections, rolling back some of the proposed changes to the law. McConnell’s amendments could be offered under the agreement reached in March, but it’s not clear whether they will be put to a vote.
After the amendments are considered, the Senate will votes this week to reauthorize the 2015 USA Freedom Act, the law that reformed the 2001 Patriot Act. The Senate’s expected passage come after the House approved the legislation in March by a broad bipartisan margin — a rare occurrence for the current Congress. It was especially striking given the legislation deals with the court that authorized FBI surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser in 2016 in an episode that has roiled President Donald Trump, and the negotiations involved Attorney General William Barr and some of the lawmakers who have been fighting over the FBI’s Russia investigation for years.
The legislation will reauthorize central elements of three expiring provisions of the surveillance law, while adding in some new privacy protections like a restriction on cell phone location data. While the three expired authorities are unrelated to the FISA court system, the bill also makes changes to the FISA court system to address findings of misconduct by the FBI over their requests to surveil Carter Page, the former Trump campaign adviser. The legislation includes changes to require the attorney general to sign off on FISA applications dealing with elected officials and federal candidates and allowing independent monitors to review FISA applications.
In addition, the legislation formally ends the National Security Agency’s bulk phone data collection, which the NSA has already stopped using.
FISA opponents say the reforms don’t go nearly far enough, with opposition in Congress among both liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans.
Paul, who’s long fought his party as an advocate for civil liberties, criticized the House bill as “weak sauce” and told reporters Tuesday that he would urge the President to veto it if it passes the Senate without the amendments, though he acknowledged the slim prospect of that.
“I’ll encourage him publicly to veto it if they don’t fix it. I don’t have a great deal of hope that that will happen,” Paul said. “I think that it’s a disservice to the people who have worked so hard to support the President if we allow FISA to stand and do this to another President in the future. We’ll have missed a great opportunity for fixing it.”
Barr played a key role among the odd bedfellows that came together earlier this year on the compromise bill as the expiration of the authorities loomed, and his involvement is a sign that Trump is unlikely to balk when the legislation heads to his desk.
Throughout a multi-week negotiation, Barr met several times with the White House and Republican lawmakers, who had demanded more provisions to address the FBI’s flawed work in the Page case. Barr had initially lobbied lawmakers for a simple extension of the expiring provisions and promised to take steps internally to address certain issues and support a broader reform effort down the line.
But when it became clear that Trump would support a more immediate reform effort, Barr worked to pass the compromise legislation, which was agreed to by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic committee chairmen Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler, along with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump’s GOP allies Devin Nunes of California and Jim Jordan of Ohio.
That agreement didn’t lead to the bill’s swift passage, however. The House left town after approving the reauthorization legislation, but Paul and Lee rejected McConnell’s attempt to move it quickly in the Senate, threatening to block the measure without votes on amendments to strengthen civil liberties protections.
McConnell agreed to allow the amendment votes in the future, and the Senate passed a 75-day extension of the authorities in order to keep the expiration of the authorities brief. But the House, which has only returned to Washington for votes on emergency coronavirus relief measures and the creation of the Coronavirus Select Subcommittee, never took up the short-term extension.
If any of the Senate amendments pass, the House will have to vote on the legislation again. But if the Senate approves the legislation without amendments it will head to Trump’s desk.
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