House Pulls Vote on FISA Reauthorization Bill After Trump Threatens Veto

May 28, 2020 Updated: May 28, 2020

The House of Representatives canceled its plans on Wednesday to vote on the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) after President Donald Trump threatened to veto the bill, and Republican leaders and top liberal Democrats said they would oppose it.

House Democratic leaders abruptly adjourned Wednesday evening, saying that a vote on the bill would not take place as expected, hours after saying there would be a vote. It is unclear whether or when a vote on the bill might be rescheduled, or if the House would skip a vote and try to negotiate with the Senate on a final compromise.

The House will be in session on Thursday and the legislation is listed for “possible consideration,” reported The Hill.

Trump threatened to veto the bill on early Wednesday, writing on Twitter, “If the FISA Bill is passed tonight on the House floor, I will quickly VETO it.”

“Our Country has just suffered through the greatest political crime in its history,” he added. “The massive abuse of FISA was a big part of it!”

Trump had also pushed back on the bill on Tuesday night, when in a Twitter post he urged Republican House lawmakers to vote against the FISA reform bill.

The FISA Act is a measure that sets up a separate legal means for the federal government to obtain permission to surveil individuals who could be agents of foreign governments. The FISA court is made up of 11 judges who sign off on warrants related to national security and intelligence gathering. It “entertains applications submitted by the United States government for approval of electronic surveillance, physical search, and other investigative actions for foreign intelligence purposes,” according to a description on the court’s website.

FISA warrants were approved by the FISA court to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide. Officials have called for reforming the FISA process after the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, last year found 17 significant errors and omissions during the process. Another report found that the FBI’s violations of FISA rules went beyond the scope of its investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in 2016.

President Trump has recently expressed his opposition on the FISA reauthorization bill, and has posted on Twitter that former Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration improperly used FISA for surveillance of Trump’s campaign aides in 2016.

Opposition to Bill

No House Republicans backed a procedural measure related to the bill on Wednesday; there were 183 Republican “no” votes. Fourteen Republicans did not vote on the procedural measure, and there were no “yes” votes from Republicans.

Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) also said they would oppose the Senate’s version of the legislation, saying it lacked reforms on online surveillance without warrants. The CPC has about 70 Democratic House members. The CPC had also previously opposed the FISA reauthorization bill that was considered by the House in March.

“We have grave concerns that this legislation does not protect people in the United States from warrantless surveillance, especially their online activity including web browsing and internet searches,” CPC Co-Chairs Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said in a statement. “Despite some positive reforms, the legislation is far too narrow in scope and would still leave the public vulnerable to invasive online spying and data collection.”

The Senate earlier this month fell short by one vote of adding a separate amendment to the legislation, sponsored by Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), that would prevent federal law enforcement from obtaining internet browsing information or search history without seeking a warrant.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced Tuesday that Democrats had agreed on a similar, but tweaked, amendment that they would offer to the House bill. The amendment is supported by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Warren Davidson (R-Ohio).

But that amendment faced opposition from the Justice Department and from Wyden. Wyden said in a statement on Tuesday that the House version would not “enact true protections for Americans rights against dragnet collection of online activity.” He continues to “urge the House to vote on the original Wyden-Daines amendment.”

Democrats later dropped the amendment, and said they instead would hold the vote on the Senate version with no amendments offered. That means the legislation would go straight to the president’s desk if passed by the House.

FISA Reauthorization Bill

The FISA reauthorization bill, known officially as “The USA Freedom Act of 2020,” first passed the House in March in a 278-136 vote. The Senate in early May then approved the bill in a bipartisan vote, and proposed several amendments.

The Justice Department on Wednesday took a stance against the bill, which had since been amended by the Senate in May. A statement from the Justice Department by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd had recommended that Trump veto the bill. Boyd wrote that the department opposes the Senate’s version of the bill.

“Although that legislation was approved with a large, bipartisan House majority, the Senate thereafter made significant changes that the Department opposed because they would unacceptably impair our ability to pursue terrorists and spies,” Boyd wrote.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks to the press
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks to the press as he arrives for a vote on the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act (FISA) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on May 14, 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Soon after the Justice Department’s opposition, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said it was time to take a “pause” on the legislation.

The House’s pulling of the vote on the bill raises the potential for three key surveillance provisions to remain expired indefinitely.

The three key surveillance provisions, or tools, expired in March after the House did not act on a Senate extension on the bill. The bill would reauthorize the three provisions until December 2023. The surveillance provisions, which need to be periodically renewed, are designed to help law enforcement officials track suspected terrorists and spies.

The three provisions include the “business records” provision, which allows the FBI to obtain a court order to secretly obtain business records of individuals in national security investigations; the “roving wiretap” provision, which allows investigators to continue eavesdropping on a subject who has switched phone numbers or providers to thwart detection; and the “lone wolf” provision, which allows the FBI to conduct surveillance on a subject without establishing that they’re acting on behalf of an international terrorism organization.

The bill would also require the Attorney General to sign off on any surveillance requests involving any candidate for federal office or an incumbent officeholder.

The Senate earlier in May had ultimately approved just one amendment to the bill. The amendment would broaden third-party oversight of the FISA process, by requiring FISA court judges to appoint a third-party observer in any case involving a “sensitive investigative matter,” as long as the court does not deem it inappropriate.

Janita Kan, Jack Phillips, Reuters, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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