With 10 legislative days to go before three key provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expires, reform plans are up in the air on Capitol Hill after Democrats on Wednesday abruptly halted committee action on the legislation.
At the last minute before the hearing, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrod Nadler halted a debate and vote on his bill that would have made small changes to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The secret court has been targeted by Republicans for reform following revelations of FBI abuses during the Trump-Russia collusion probe. But liberal Democrats also want to curb the government’s power to spy on Americans.
Adding to the drama, the key provisions to the FISA statute and are set to sunset March 14 unless Congress acts.
The FBI and Justice Department, as well as hawkish Republican lawmakers, extol FISA as critical to combatting terrorism and other foreign threats.
Democrats and Republicans criticized the mild reforms offered by Mr. Nadler, New York Democrat. They said it did not go far enough to add more safeguards to the FISA process, which has drawn scrutiny after the Justice Department inspector general concluded the FBI withheld information from the court to obtain a warrant to surveil Trump campaign figure Carter Page.
Reps. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, and Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, have pushed for amendments that would more broadly restrain the government’s surveillance powers.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, suggested Mr. Nadler canceled the hearing because the amendments would have passed with bipartisan support.
“The reason we are not having the hearing today is that there was a consensus among the pipe-swinging progressives and the libertarian Republicans to roll the establishment of both parties,” he told The Washington Times. “We would have had the votes today, which is why the markup is canceled.”
Rep. Greg Stuebe, Florida Republican offered a similar explanation for the sudden cancellation.
“I think, internally, the Democrats are having problems,” he told the Times.
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said the delay puts America’s national security at risk.
“Critical counterterrorism provisions are hanging in the balance because Democrats chose to delay an already ill-timed markup,” he said. “Democrats’ bill does not address the serious issues in our FISA system. I’m not at all surprised that all Republicans, and apparently, even some Democrats, agree.”
Even some in Mr. Nadler’s party seemed lukewarm about his proposals.
“I haven’t made a decision on the bill yet until I see what the amendments are moving forward,” Rep. Hakeem Jefferies, New York Democrat, adding that the House needed to make a “decisive statement” on FISA.
Still, Democrats appeared to be caught off guard by the sudden cancellation.
“I was not in the conversation. I was prepared to be at the markup, I just got the notice,” Rep. Madeleine Dean, Pennsylvania Democrat, said roughly 20 minutes before the hearing was scheduled to begin.
Mr. Nadler’s proposal would have eliminated a program aimed at stopping suspected terrorists, but also collects data, including call dates and times of Americans, with whom they are in contact.
The rest of the bill was largely smaller changes that match recommendations detailed in the inspector general’s report, including giving FISA judges more freedom to have warrant applications reviewed by outside expires and require the FBI to candidly correct errors.
One proposal advocated by members of both parties is the addition of an outside expert to represent before the FISC by challenging the FBI’s application to obtain a wiretap.
“I think there is a lot of consensus between liberty-loving Republicans and some of the populist Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to convert the FISA process from a non-adversarial process into an adversarial process with enhanced Amicus standards,” Mr. Gaetz said. “Right now it is a non-adversarial process and that is not working for America.”