House Republicans Claim Dems Plan to Tie FISA Reauthorization to Coronavirus Funding to Avoid Real Reform

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) attend a House Democrats news conference to reintroduce the H.R.7 “Paycheck Fairness Act” on Capitol Hill, January 30, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

House Republicans are urging that any coronavirus funding bill be kept separate from FISA reform after hearing rumblings that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Democratic leadership could force a clean reauthorization of FISA’s expiring powers by attaching it to a “must-have” bill.

Representative Tim Burchett (R., Tenn.), along with 38 other House Republicans, sent a letter on Friday to Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), warning them not to play “political games” by proposing a coronavirus-FISA package.

“It is our belief, and, we believe, the belief of most Americans, that Congress should not tie these two, unrelated issues together,” reads the letter, which was obtained by National Review. “Public health has nothing to do with foreign intelligence surveillance.”

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Burchett told National Review that Democratic leadership “should be ashamed of themselves for even trying to attempt something like this.”

“We received word that they were going to attach the FISA reauthorization onto the funding for the coronavirus, which is very important right now — obviously, the public is alarmed about it, and they should be — and I just think this is petty politics at best,” he said. Burchett added that he had heard from some Republicans who would vote against coronavirus funding if it contained a FISA reauthorization, and declined to comment on whether he had spoken to the White House about the letter.

FISA has four discrete powers set to expire on March 15: the “business records” power, the “call detail records” authority, the “roving wiretaps” provision, and the “lone wolf” amendment. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.) and House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam B. Schiff (D., Calif.) proposed a bill in January that would extend three of the four surveillance powers, while ending the call-records program, which the NSA found to be largely defunct.

But a bipartisan, bicameral effort to enact more stringent reforms also rose up in response to Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report exposing how the statute was abused by the FBI in the course of its investigation into the Trump campaign. Those reformers spearheaded the Safeguarding American’s Private Records Act (SAPRA), which takes aim at the business-records program — also known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act — because it allows the FBI to access records and documents of a U.S. citizen through a FISA warrant issued to a third party, such as a telecommunications company.

“SAPRA is the substantial reform to all of 215, and Nadler had some window-dressing, frankly, and was hoping they could get by with just doing that, and this is a very meaty reform bill,” Representative Warren Davidson, a cosponsor of SAPRA, explained to National Review.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and administration officials have given mixed signals on FISA reform, with attorney general William Barr calling for the statute to be reauthorized before any significant reforms are implemented. But GOP sources told National Review earlier this week that “a long list” of Republicans supports “significant reforms” to FISA before it is reauthorized — a view that Senator Rand Paul claims President Trump supports.

Davidson confirmed to National Review that Republicans are “operating under an understanding that a clean reauth is not something that the president would sign.”

On Wednesday, the House was set to markup Nadler’s bill, but delayed the move after Representative Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) revealed she intended to propose amendments to Nadler’s bill “pulled directly from SAPRA,” according to a House source involved in the reform effort.

While initial reports suggested that the proposal contained “poison pills” designed to scupper FISA reform, Davidson pushed back on the claim, saying instead that the delay was due to a fear that Nadler’s bill lacked support within his own caucus.

“We had a growing coalition of conservatives and progressives who believe this was an important reform — not just because of the Horowitz support, or frankly anything to do with President Trump. This is a principled rehash of, frankly, the Patriot Act debate,” he explained. “ . . . . If they were clear ‘poison pills,’ why would he need to pull the amendment? His coalition would’ve held together, it would’ve been a party-line vote, game over. He held the bill because he knew he didn’t have the votes.”

While Pelosi denied that FISA reform and coronavirus funding would be linked on Thursday, Lofgren (D., Calif.) told National Review that her staff had been told that the Judiciary Committee did “not intend to reconvene” on FISA — signaling that FISA reauthorization could be merged with coronavirus funding.

“I don’t know how the process would be, if they’re going to refuse to do any markup, that is extraordinary. So how do you make progress? I don’t know,” Lofgren admitted. She declined to comment on conversations with Democratic leadership, but said that she has had no one “in the pro-FISA court camp come up and express concern to me” on her amendments, while “quite a few members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat,” have thanked her “for standing up for the Constitution.”

Lofgren also voiced her disapproval at any straight reauthorization through a coronavirus bill, and implied serious FISA reform had the votes to pass.

“I think that would be quite wrong,” she said. “Obviously, we need to prepare and respond to a pandemic, and to put something that a large number, potentially a majority, of the House and Senate don’t agree with, to jam them, is not a good way to govern.”

House Republicans expressed similar sentiments on the situation, with Representative Andy Biggs (R., Ariz.) calling Nadler’s delay a “pyrrhic victory.”

“I say it’s a pyrrhic victory because the rumors have gone rampant now where leadership and people who want the status quo are going to basically do something like maybe attach this to a must-have bill — perhaps coronavirus funding bill — and then skirt and completely go around committee and not have a committee hearing on it, and then prevent us from having a debate and introducing amendments on the floor of the House,” Biggs explained to National Review.

The Arizona Republican also defended Lofgren’s proposal, and suggested that the delay was because “it probably would have passed.”

“I think that the people that disagree with my position are much more likely to try and find a way around the coalitions that are forming. And that’s why don’t be surprised if you see it attached to some must-see legislation,” he stated.

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