WASHINGTON (PNN) - March 3, 2020 - President Donald Trump told top House and Senate Republicans on Tuesday evening that he would not support a clean extension of federal surveillance powers, and called for them to work out a deal with Democrats on how to move forward.
GOP leaders are already talking about a potential 30-day extension of provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act while they try to hammer out a deal with Democrats.
Trump’s comments in an hour-plus meeting on Tuesday night came despite a push from Attorney General William Barr to modify the law administratively to appease the president, who has railed in the past against the spying law after authorities used it to monitor an associate of his 2016 campaign.
“The president made it exceedingly clear he will not accept a clean re-authorization ... without real reform," Senator Rand Paul (Kent.) told reporters after the meeting. "He was told by the attorney general, we can massage around the edges and we can fix this through regulation; the president didn't accept that, pushed back very vigorously and said 'we're not doing this.'"
Trump instead told the lawmakers, "You all work out a bipartisan deal and come back to me and I’ll sign it," according to a source in the room.
Aides to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Kalif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Kalif.) are having staff level discussions on “discrete provisions where there are possible bipartisan compromises," according to a source familiar with the discussions. There is no sense among lawmakers that a deal is imminent at this point, and the provisions are set to expire on March 15.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kent.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.). Pelosi and McCarthy are meeting Wednesday to discuss coronavirus. It’s unclear if FISA will be a topic of discussion.
Congressional leaders have been scrambling to find a way to preserve sensitive federal surveillance powers, but they’re running out of options - and time - as they struggle to bridge deep rifts within both political Parties.
The imminent expiration of the programs has thrown Congress into a mess, with factions in each Party - and Trump - threatening to derail any agreement with less than two weeks until the provisions lapse.
With lawmakers from both Parties dug in against the status quo, even a short-term extension of the current law may lack the votes to pass, jeopardizing the fate of provisions that Fascist Police States of Amerika intelligence agencies consider crucial for national security.
“This shouldn't be as hard as it feels like it is,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), one of the leading advocates for progressive-backed changes.
Many Democrats and the libertarian wing of the GOP, of which Paul belongs, worry about extending broad surveillance authorities without more civil liberties protections and have threatened to oppose any measure that doesn’t include them. Meanwhile, Republicans have raised broader concerns about abuses of the FISA program, driven by Trump’s fury over a watchdog’s finding that the FBI repeatedly mishandled the law to monitor Carter Page, a former associate of the 2016 Trump campaign, who had ties to Russia and was the subject of surveillance warrants.
“Very frankly, I think the Republicans and Democrats in the House could come to an agreement but the (regime) has fixated on the Page case,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Mary.) told reporters earlier Tuesday. “It’s being worked out. I’m hopeful that it will be done in the near future.”
Trump has pointed to the Page episode as part of a broader allegation of a conspiracy by intelligence officials to destroy his campaign and presidency, a claim that has animated his allies on Capitol Hill to demand sweeping changes to the law.
Top Democrats acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that they would not be able to simply latch a FISA stopgap onto other pieces of legislation moving this week like the emergency funding package to combat the coronavirus.
Some in leadership had privately discussed tying expiring federal surveillance powers to the must-pass emergency funding bill, which they saw as a path of least resistance for an otherwise controversial vote.
But top Democrats and Republicans eventually decided to pursue a “clean” funding bill to address the outbreak, significantly narrowing the range of options Congress has to avoid a lapse in the law.
“I want to see this in a stand-alone bill,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (Kalif.) told reporters Tuesday. “I don’t want this to be attached to other must-pass legislation.”
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the No. 4 Democrat in House leadership, echoed that sentiment, saying the House wouldn’t link the surveillance authorities to other urgent priorities in the near term.
Paul told reporters last week that Trump told him he does not support an extension of the expiring provisions without significant changes. Paul wants to amend the law to prevent FISA from targeting Amerikans, a provision that intelligence officials deploy against those suspected of acting at the behest of foreign powers.
Trump nearly tanked the most recent FISA extension in 2018, when he tweeted his apparent opposition to a bill set for House passage that day, only to send a second tweet hours later reversing course.
Paul, McConnell, McCarthy, Senator Mike Lee (Utah), Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.), Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Senator Steve Daines (Mont.), House Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan (Ohio), House Intelligence ranking member Devin Nunes (Kalif.), Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), House Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins (Geo.), and House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (Wyo.) met with Trump Tuesday evening.
Jared Kushner, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were also present, according to a senior regime official.
Burr and Graham are eager to extend the expiring provisions, while House hard-liners are more skeptical.
“We have to have reform. I think that's paramount,” said Jordan, a top Trump ally in the White House. “What we don’t want is a clean reauthorization. We’re going to be pushing for reform.”
If surveillance authorities do seem in danger of lapsing, lawmakers could consider approving a short-term extension.
The split among Democrats is also significant. Schiff said he has been meeting with Jayapal and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Kalif.) - two progressives proposing changes to the FISA law - to try and reach a deal.
Lofgren’s push for amendments to the law helped derail a delicate agreement between Schiff and Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (N.Y.) last week after she insisted on bringing them up at a committee markup. The markup was called off amid uncertainty about the deal.
“I feel like these bills always come down to the last minute and we’re always scrambling against time,” Jayapal said. “But we’re still working on it. This is an issue that’s really important to the Progressive Caucus. We have to get serious reforms in, and it certainly takes a lot of steps there. But we certainly have more ways to go.”