Road ahead: COVID-19 stimulus still behind FISA on Senate schedule

Surveillance legislation remains the pending business

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., moved to proceed to the FISA bill last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., moved to proceed to the FISA bill last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 16, 2020 at 11:34am

The second phase of the congressional response to the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be on the Senate's agenda ⁠— but it’s not first in line.

The House still needs to pass what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin described as a “technical correction” to the economic stimulus bill that was passed in the early hours of Saturday morning.

“We will be doing a technical correction on Monday morning. Despite us working very hard, we had language agreed with the speaker and with Kevin McCarthy,” Mnuchin told reporters at the White House, referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House minority leader. “Kevin, the speaker and I agreed that they would vote on it and have an agreement. There'll be a technical correction.”

When the House convened Monday for a scheduled pro forma session, Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin immediately recessed subject to the call of the chair. That allows the House to quickly pass the corrections language when it is ready.

The House is only scheduled to hold pro forma sessions this week. And it was supposed to be a recess week for the Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., scrapped that plan last week because of the pandemic and Sunday’s expiration of three key surveillance powers.

A motion by McConnell to call up legislation reviving the powers and overhauling the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will be pending when the Senate convenes Monday afternoon.

In a statement Sunday night on the next steps for addressing COVID-19, McConnell also pointed to the surveillance legislation.

“Separately, several important authorities that law enforcement use to defend our homeland and protect Americans are currently set to expire,” he said. “The Senate will urgently consider the reauthorization and reform legislation which passed the House with a wide bipartisan majority and is endorsed by the Attorney General.”

While some Democratic senators were calling for McConnell to immediately reconvene the Senate for votes over the weekend, taking any quick action on either FISA or the coronavirus package would require unanimous consent.

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., on Sunday offered a very different suggestion: he said the Senate should conduct business only by unanimous consent, allowing senators in opposition to publish their opposing views in the Congressional Record.

“Given the fact that we can and should pass the Coronavirus package, and any subsequent recommended bipartisan fixes to it, by UC immediately, your decision to call us back to Washington this week is unnecessary and puts many innocent people at risk,” Durbin said in a statement addressing McConnell. “Demanding that those Senators not currently in self quarantine take unnecessary flights exposing themselves and others; requiring our staffs to return to the Capitol and then have all of us return to our families makes no sense in light of the President’s emergency declaration.”

Durbin’s suggestion of a shadow Senate operation came ahead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's announcement that gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks should be postponed or cancelled.

The Illinois senator also proposed that the GOP leadership accept a deal offered last week by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah to revive the FISA authorities for 45 days, along with a commitment for floor votes on amendments down the road. Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., objected to a series of requests from Lee along those lines on Thursday.

As senators were heading out of town Thursday, including some heading for the airport, it was not clear how easy it would be for them to return to Capitol Hill on Monday.

Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown was driving back to Washington, D.C., on Monday ahead of the scheduled 5:30 p.m. debate-limiting vote on proceeding to the surveillance policy measure.

McConnell gave no indication that he would be taking that approach.

“This new disease is challenging our great nation in unfamiliar ways. But we have overcome far greater challenges before. Those of us in elected office ⁠— at all levels ⁠— must continue to put partisanship aside and focus on our common work to serve the common good,” McConnell said.