WASHINGTON — Three intelligence surveillance tools are set to expire on Sunday with the Senate poised to leave for the weekend without acting on a stopgap extension.
The House on Wednesday passed an overhaul measure that would reauthorize through Dec. 1, 2023, various surveillance authorities of the USA FREEDOM Act and the underlying Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Absent an immediate agreement on additional legislation to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the House-passed surveillance powers bill is expected to be the first item of Senate business next week.
“There are two principal things legislatively we’ll deal with next week, and one is the extension of the three FISA elements that the House has extended. We weren’t going to be able to get that done before we left,” Senate Republican Policy Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said.
Blunt said the other priority for the week that was previously scheduled to be a recess would be additional coronavirus-related legislation.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr was resigned to the fact that no short-term extension would be coming for the three provisions.
“I hope we don’t have an attack this weekend,” Burr told reporters as he boarded the subway that runs from the Capitol to the Russell Senate Office Building Thursday.
Sen. Rand Paul, one of the leading critics of the House-passed bill (and the scope of the surveillance programs themselves), confirmed there would be no expedited consideration without a floor debate.
“They were preaching years ago ‘the Republic will end and we’ll be overrun by terrorism,’” the Kentucky Republican said. “Rumor is, they’ll come back and force us to choke down the House bill with no votes or no amendments.”
“I have proposed that we do something really extraordinary, and for a few days we just use the Constitution,” Paul told CQ Roll Call. “It’s a very radical idea, but I think the Republic can survive with no FISA and just the Constitution.”
Paul said Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Ron Wyden of Oregon were also among those seeking an amendment process.
Lee came to the floor Thursday afternoon and suggested advancing a 45-day extension of the expiring authorities in exchange for a future debate on the House bill with a set of amendment votes.
Burr objected, and he responded that the appropriate place for the amendment debate would be in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Section 215 authority lets the government collect business and other records of individuals through the court.
The roving wiretap provision lets the government get orders targeting people who frequently change phone lines or use burner devices in an effort to avoid traditional wiretaps on individual lines. Lone wolf provisions allow for the FISA court to issue targeting surveillance on suspected terrorists that operate outside of formal networks.
Some conservatives have pushed President Donald Trump to veto the House-passed measure, a point the president himself noted in a Thursday morning tweet.
“Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted ‘coup’ of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!” Trump tweeted.
That group of senators cited by the president includes Lee and Paul.
Attorney General William Barr is among the advocates of the House-passed bill, as is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Blunt, who anticipated that the House FISA legislation would pass the Senate quickly, did not anticipate a major disruption if there is only a brief lapse in authorization.
“I’ve been on the Intel Committee for a long time. I’ve been through several of these FISA extensions of various kinds, and if the FISA things lapse by less than a handful of days, I just don’t think that’s a problem,” Blunt said. “By us coming back next week, I think we’ll — we’re like to assure that if anything, the lapse in these particular authorities are a day or two.”