House Republicans abandoned plans on Wednesday to vote on a long-term reauthorization of a powerful government authority to conduct foreign surveillance on U.S. soil, apparently succumbing to internal party demands for time to negotiate an extension with more-stringent limitations on when authorities can access Americans' communications.
"There isn't any chance that a long-term FISA reauthorization has the support of the overall conference," Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday, referring to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008, which gives the National Security Agency the authority to collect emails and other communications of overseas foreign targets from U.S. companies.
Lawmakers are expected to approve a short-term extension of the surveillance authority in its current form, keeping it in place until Jan. 19 — that being the same date the short-term budget extension pending before Congress this week is set to expire.
Absent congressional action, the Section 702 program will expire at the end of the year — a worst-case scenario for the intelligence community, which has ranked an extension of the program as its highest legislative priority for 2017. But Republican members of the Freedom Caucus, as well as members of the House Judiciary Committee, have insisted that Congress place more-significant restrictions than GOP leaders were planning to impose on the FBI's ability to access information about Americans who may have been in touch with foreign targets.
Party leaders had rallied around an effort from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to pass a long-term extension of the Section 702 program that would have incorporated a requirement that the FBI seek a court order before viewing the contents of queries for information about Americans' communications in the program database. The restriction, which is based on a proposal first floated by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), would apply only to criminal cases.
But by midafternoon Wednesday, Nunes told reporters that the reauthorization effort was dead "for now" and that decisions about how to proceed were being made "above my pay grade." The House Rules Committee also canceled plans to review the proposed legislation Wednesday afternoon.
It is not yet clear whether congressional leaders expect to pass the short-term extension of the surveillance program as part of a must-pass spending bill the House and Senate will vote on this week, or alongside it. Meadows told reporters late Wednesday that congressional leaders were polling the caucus to determine whether there would be enough votes to pass the measures together.
The nearly three-week extension of the government's existing authority under Section 702 would buy negotiators in the House and Senate time to work out remaining differences among their proposals.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has pushed for a much less restrictive proposal than the House's measures, requiring the FBI only to request a ruling from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on the legality of a query for information about a "known U.S. person" from the Section 702 database before viewing its contents. The secret court considers any request for foreign intelligence or for a law enforcement purpose to be legal.
Nunes said late Wednesday that the House had struck "an agreement with the Senate" about the particulars of a long-term extension but that the Senate "would never sign off" on the deal — something he attributed mainly to Democrats.
He guessed that in the new year, the compromise Section 702 legislation will be very similar to the legislation he filed late Tuesday.
"There's not much left to negotiate on," he said.