FORT WASHINGTON, Md. — Conservative lawmakers pledged to their base Thursday morning that they would seek to avoid another clean extension of expiring government surveillance powers.
Rep. Doug Collins, the outgoing ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, was on the stage for a previously scheduled appearance at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference. He spoke just a day after Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York abruptly postponed a committee markup of draft legislation to reauthorize and update key surveillance authorities that are scheduled to sunset March 15.
Collins and like-minded Republicans argue that a broader overhaul of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act powers is needed, including the operation of the secretive FISA Court to prevent a recurrence of the issues that arose in surveillance of Carter Page, a former adviser to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“Jerry Nadler and the rest of the Democrats do not want to have to admit that these investigations occurred,” Collins, a Georgia Republican, said. “They don't want to have to admit FISA was abused. So, what do they do? They do like everybody I’ve seen in the Democratic Party lately, they stick their head in the sand and they only blame Trump.”
Collins said the underlying law remains an important tool for identifying and tracking potential terrorist activity.
“We have got to look at ways to make this a process that can’t be politicized, and we’ve also got to make where it can still be used,” Collins said. “I’m promising you here, I’ve told our conference this, and I said this out yesterday when I was furious that they stopped this markup: I am not going to trade off the easy extensions for not doing anything with FISA.”
“We have to do something with FISA, and the House needs to do it, and the Senate needs to take it up, and we need to send it to the president so we know that this will not happen again,” he added.
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that it’s important for Congress to pass a FISA bill before the March 15 deadline, saying the House wants to pass it before March 12 because of its legislative schedule.
“The goal is to have the right balance between civil liberties and natural security,” she said, noting a bill the Judiciary Committee drafted in consultation with the Intelligence Committee does that.
Pelosi said “there are many good things in the bill that further protect civil liberties,” citing a provision to end to data collection by telephone records as an example.
Asked what the Judiciary panel canceling its markup of the measure yesterday means for that bill’s prospects, Pelosi said “it’s a postponement” and suggested Democrats could work through their differences.
Some panel Democrats, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, planned to offer amendments to the draft legislation that were concerning to fellow Democrats.
“There are others who would like to see some other provisions,” Pelosi said. “We’re just working through that now out of respect for everyone’s point of view.”
“We’ll see how that goes, and hopefully that will be done expeditiously,” Pelosi added
In a brief interview with CQ Roll Call following the formal CPAC program, Collins said Judiciary Republicans were not in the loop on what the next steps would be for his Democratic counterparts.
“After he took it off, he’s not given us another date to do it,” Collins said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen as we go forward.”
Speaking at CPAC earlier in the day, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., another top ally of President Donald Trump, offered a word of warning to fellow Republicans.
“We’re right in the middle of reauthorizing the FISA process. Shame on any member of Congress or any senator, including Republicans, if we reauthorize it without reforming it,” Meadows said. “It needs to be reformed.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.