When asked about the prospects for a bipartisan deal to reauthorize the expiring pieces of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Barr responded: “We’ll see.”
Senior aides for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and McCarthy have been negotiating in earnest in recent days after it became clear that committee leaders in both parties weren’t going to come together on a proposal ahead of the expiration date.
Intelligence agencies have pleaded for Congress to extend the measures, which they say are important for national security, but a debate has raged in Congress over how heavily to reform them. That, combined with President Donald Trump’s frequent, public criticism of the intelligence community, has made any bipartisan agreement elusive in a polarized Congress.
House leaders thought they were close to a Democratic package of modest FISA reforms last month, but a last-minute push by House progressives — led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) — forced leaders of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees to table the talks. Lofgren declined to discuss the status of negotiations late Monday.
Adding to the sense of uncertainty, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia — who is currently the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee — announced Monday that he decided to self-quarantine after interacting with an individual who was infected with coronavirus, effectively sidelining Collins for the rest of the week. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), another key player in the FISA fight and Trump’s incoming chief of staff, also announced he was under self-quarantine until Wednesday.
The three expiring FISA provisions include “roving wiretap” authority for federal intelligence agents to surveil suspects who change phones, the authority to monitor people acting as “lone wolves” — inspired by, but not necessarily at the direction of, foreign powers — and the authority to access business records and email metadata of suspects.
But any potential agreement could be thwarted by Senate Republicans or Trump, who has demanded significant changes to the surveillance programs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has sought to protect the expiring FISA provisions.
The issue has created rifts in both parties, with progressives and libertarians insisting on long-standing demands for civil liberties protections, while conservatives have aligned with Trump, who has accused intelligence agencies of abusing the surveillance authorities to monitor his 2016 campaign.
A group of senior Republican lawmakers met last week to discuss FISA reform at the White House, where Trump informed members he wouldn’t sign a clean extension — an idea that Barr had pitched during a lunch meeting with the Senate GOP days earlier. Instead, the president encouraged lawmakers to strike a long-term agreement. “You all work out a bipartisan deal and come back to me and I’ll sign it,” Trump said, according to a source in the room.
One Republican lawmaker involved in negotiations said there was hope the House could reach a deal “in principle” on potential reforms this week, clearing the way for a short-term measure to preserve the existing provisions until such a deal passed into law. But some of the sharpest GOP critics of the FISA law said they’d rather see the provisions expire than approve even a short-term extension.
“Real reform or nothing this week,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a Monday tweet.
Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), another member seeking significant reforms to FISA, said Congress’ focus on coronavirus this week shouldn’t interfere with its ability to press for changes to the surveillance law.
“I think Congress should be able to multitask,” he said.
Davidson said he, too, would favor letting the authorities lapse if there was no deal ahead of this weekend, but he added that he was planning to file a separate bill to reauthorize two of them: the roving wiretaps and lone-wolf authorities.
And Democrats have their own problems. A planned House Judiciary Committee markup of a FISA renewal bill was scrapped two weeks ago after Lofgren threatened to sink the legislation at the last minute.
Martin Matishak contributed to this report.