House scraps votes on FISA bill

Confusion, disagreement and tweets from the president leave the measure’s future in doubt

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., on Thursday scrapped a floor vote on a surveillance overhaul bill for the second time. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., on Thursday scrapped a floor vote on a surveillance overhaul bill for the second time. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 27, 2020 at 9:47pm, Updated May 28, 2020 at 10:04am

Updated 10:04 a.m. May 28 — House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced Thursday that a bill to reauthorize and overhaul surveillance authorities was being pulled from the floor schedule.

"At the request of the Speaker of the House, I am withdrawing consideration of the FISA Act. The two-thirds of the Republican Party that voted for this bill in March have indicated they are going to vote against it now," Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement.

The moves comes after the House on Wednesday postponed a vote on a bipartisan Senate compromise on overhauling surveillance programs.

That was the culmination of a confusing 24 hour period that featured disagreements about a key amendment, calls by House Republican leaders to pull the bill, and a veto promise from President Donald Trump that left the measure's future in doubt.

The result could be the Senate needing to once again consider the House-passed measure, according to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“There are some that say, ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like that.’ And if they don’t want to vote for a bill, then we’ll just send back our House bill, which isn’t as good as the Senate bill,” the California Democrat said in a PBS Newshour interview earlier in the day, before the House vote on the measure was canceled.

“The Senate bill was very courageous, broke new ground, very progressive in terms of protecting the balance between security, privacy, security and civil rights. That’s the constant balance that we have to have and this bill does it very well."

Pelosi said that in her view the Senate offered a better product with the inclusion of an amendment from Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. “The Senate bill is better. I wish we could do that,” she said on PBS.

A House vote to concur in the Senate amendments would have cleared the bill for the president's signature, since the Rules Committee did not permit floor consideration of either an amendment from Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, or similar Senate language that came up a vote short of adoption in that chamber limiting access to browsing history.

That particular House amendment that was not in order had been the result of negotiations between Lofgren and fellow California Democrat and Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff.

“Our nation continues to face an array of threats — whether from foreign intelligence services or terror organizations — and we need to ensure that the intelligence community retains the authorities needed to protect our country, while providing robust protections of Americans’ civil liberties," Schiff said in a statement late Tuesday. “The revised amendment would prevent use of FISA’s business records provision to seek to obtain a U.S. person’s internet browsing and search history information.”

Some Democrats believed that language was not sufficiently close to the version offered by Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden.

In a Wednesday floor speech, Hoyer criticized Republicans who voted for an earlier version of the bill on the House floor but said they were opposed this time.

“There are more protections in here than when those names voted for it, and 80 members of the United States Senate voted for it, 48 Republicans,” Hoyer said. “Now, what’s different when they voted on it and 48 Republicans in the United States Senate voted for it?”

Hoyer confirmed that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had called to try to get the Senate-passed measure pulled from the House floor schedule. House Republicans also whipped against the bill. And the president, meanwhile, railed against it on Twitter.

“If the FISA Bill is passed tonight on the House floor, I will quickly VETO it. Our Country has just suffered through the greatest political crime in its history,” the president tweeted. “The massive abuse of FISA was a big part of it!”

“WARRANTLESS SURVEILLANCE OF AMERICANS IS WRONG!” Trump tweeted earlier in the day.

“This president shows less respect for law enforcement than any president I’ve seen at the federal level,” Hoyer said.

The new opposition from Republicans did not seem to be all about the president's tweets, however.

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said Wednesday that she was opposed to the bill as presented in the House this week because those new protections could undermine security.

“FISA is a crucially important set of authorities and it’s a set of authorities that was abused,” Cheney said. “We have to make sure that we deal with the abuse and that we address the abuse, but we should not push through a bill which, in my view, would fundamentally weaken our ability to keep the nation safe because of the amendments that have been added to that bill, and we shouldn't do that with proxy vote.”

Cheney's concerns were similar to those expressed Wednesday by the Justice Department, that the evolving bill could prompt a veto recommendation from Attorney General William Barr — though perhaps for different reasons than those espoused by the president himself.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.