The Senate approved legislation Thursday to renew a handful of key domestic surveillance powers, but only after civil libertarians attached language that the Justice Department warns would “unacceptably degrade” national security.
Now the bill goes back to the House for possibly more tinkering, leaving a cloud over its chances for swift final approval.
The USA Freedom Reauthorization Act of 2020 passed the Senate by an 80-16 vote more than two months after the House approved it by a wide, bipartisan margin. But Thursday’s vote came a day after Senate privacy hawks successfully amended the bill to expand legal protections for certain groups of individuals targeted by federal surveillance — a change that DOJ labeled unacceptable.
“We appreciate the Senate’s reauthorization of three expired national security authorities,” department national security spokesman Marc Raimondi said in a statement. But he said the amended bill “would unacceptably degrade our ability to conduct surveillance of terrorists, spies and other national security threats.”
President Donald Trump, who has accused a government “deep state” of misusing its spying powers, also has not indicated whether he would sign the bill.
The vote occurred mere hours after the announcement that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who in March argued passionately against letting the authorities lapse, will temporarily step down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee amid a probe into his stock trades.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t say during her weekly news conference Thursday when the chamber would take up the amended measure.
A Democratic leadership aide told POLITICO that it won’t be considered on Friday when the House convenes to vote on the latest Covid-19 relief package. The aide said the leadership was “assessing next steps.”
The FISA renewal bill includes new privacy protections that Attorney General William Barr had helped negotiate and would impose new requirements on the FISA court system. Those were inspired in part by Trump’s allegations that the Obama administration improperly used the spying tools to wiretap his former campaign adviser Carter Page during the initial probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The bill would also permanently end an already deactivated NSA program that had allowed the agency to obtain, with judicial approval, Americans’ phone records in terrorism probes.
Thursday’s successful passage came months after the House voted to reauthorize the authorities with modest changes. The Senate, however, couldn’t reach an agreement for quick passage of the House bill in March amid objections from the chamber’s privacy advocates. The chamber eventually adopted a 77-day extension as a short-term solution, but the House never took it up.
The intelligence tools the authorities enabled have remained offline ever since.
The measure now kicks back to the House, where progressives and libertarians could use the Senate’s changes as leverage to reopen debate on the legislation and try to amend it even further. That’s especially a possibility for those GOP members who have demanded that the chamber reopen for business as usual despite the pandemic.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) secured the amendment expanding legal protections, called the legislation a “good bill.”
“We got some good reforms here. They are consistent with many of the aims that House members who negotiated the last House bill had in mind,” Lee told POLITICO before the final vote. He had previously lobbied Trump to veto the measure if it reached his desk unaltered.
“I’m certainly not going to tell them what to do with it,” Lee added, though he suggested he might support something similar to a proposed amendment from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) that would have protected Americans’ internet browsing and search histories from federal surveillance. It came up just one vote shy of the 60-vote threshold.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said the Leahy-Lee amendment “took us a step closer to properly protecting Americans’ civil liberties, and it’s clear we need to go farther.” She had successfully scuttled the House’s first surveillance package in February just hours before the House Judiciary Committee was due to mark it up.
On Thursday, she specifically cited the Wyden-Daines amendment, saying that “it’s now the House’s responsibility to curb this violation of Americans’ rights. I know it’s still within our grasp as lawmakers to push for the significant privacy reforms we need.”
Other House members also seem itching for a fresh surveillance fight.
“Although I am pleased that the Lee-Leahy Amendment passed, I oppose the bill without further amendment. If permitted by House rules, I will offer amendments,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) said in a statement to POLITICO. He and Lofgren co-sponsored an alternative renewal bill to the one the House passed.