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Congress scrambles to finalize coronavirus funding, surveillance deals

Congress scrambles to finalize coronavirus funding, surveillance deals

by JORDAIN CARNEY | The Hill  |  Published on March 3, 2020

Lawmakers are staring down a tight timeline on major legislation as they try to clear the deck before a mid-March break.

Congress has less than 10 working days to tackle both coronavirus funding and reauthorization of expiring surveillance provisions in the USA Freedom Act before they leave town on March 13.

Despite the urgency, there is no clear path for legislation to get through both chambers and to President Trump’s desk.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of leadership, said senators did not get clarity in a closed-door leadership meeting about how they would move the two forthcoming bills by next Friday.

“But I do think that we still expect the House to pass coronavirus this week. Though as the week goes on, it’s likely late enough that we would do it next week,” he said.

The House wants to vote on coronavirus funding this week. While they have not yet finalized an agreement, appropriators appear close.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said the best-case scenario would be the House voting on Wednesday and the Senate the following day. But he stopped short of pledging they would have a deal finalized in time to do that.

A source familiar with the negotiations said they expected to have a deal on Tuesday and that the final figure would be between $7 billion and $8 billion.

“When it comes to Americans’ health, when it comes to our safety, when it comes to dealing with this problem head-on, skimping doesn’t make any sense at all. If there was ever something that’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, that’s it,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Monday about the growing price tag for emergency funding.

Congress is under increasing pressure to act to combat the coronavirus amid fears of a widespread outbreak in the United States. As of Monday, the virus had been detected in 10 states, and the first domestic deaths, both in Washington state, were announced over the weekend.

Congressional offices have been urged to update their pandemic plans, and Vice President Pence will join both the Democratic and Republican Senate caucus lunches on Tuesday to discuss the administration’s efforts.

“In regard to the Capitol, we’re in the process of determining exactly what precautions, if any, to take at the Capitol to protect those who work here and visit here,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told a group of reporters Monday.

Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told NBC News the virus has “now reached outbreak proportions and likely pandemic proportions.”

If the House votes by the end of the week on coronavirus funding, that would leave the Senate just a few days to address both the emergency spending and the expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act, a key intelligence measure. If the Senate wants to speed up consideration for either bill, leaders would need the consent of every senator; otherwise, each bill could eat up days of floor time.

One potential option would be to merge a short-term reauthorization of the USA Freedom Act into the coronavirus funding measure. But that idea has been shot down by both Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). The White House has also signaled that it doesn’t want to bog down the coronavirus bill with unrelated items.

“It’s important that we deal with the first problems first,” said White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland, referring to the coronavirus.

He added that it’s important to “not get distracted on unrelated and unattached issues.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, warned against airdropping in the surveillance fight over concerns that it could sink the coronavirus funding measure.

“That would be the biggest mistake we could make. It would make us look foolish,” Leahy said.

Neither chamber has made much headway into deciding how to extend, reform or end the three expiring intelligence provisions related to lone wolf surveillance, roving wiretaps and a controversial phone records program.

The House Judiciary Committee pulled a bill last week that would have reauthorized some of the expiring provisions after Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) threatened to force votes on several broader changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Lofgren and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who negotiated a draft of the bill with Nadler, were expected to try to revive the bill.

Those talks have yet to bear fruit, and legislation introduced in the upper chamber by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), which would end the call records program while extending the other two provisions, remains stuck in the Judiciary Committee.

“I would like to think we can get that extended before the deadline … but we’ll just have to see,” Blunt said.

Part of the headache for leadership is that progressives, libertarian-minded lawmakers and a growing number of rank-and-file Republicans want to use the USA Freedom Act reauthorization to make broader changes to the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act after Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the surveillance applications regarding Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

But McConnell is supportive of extending the three provisions, as is Attorney General William Barr. One idea being floated is to extend the three provisions until 2022, though it’s unclear if that could get the 60 votes needed in the Senate to advance legislation.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, floated between a three- to six-month extension to give Congress more time to strike a broader deal.

“I think everybody is sort of hoping that we could get this resolved,” he said. “But if we had to do that, I assume it would be a three- or six-month whatever to allow for some time to come together.”

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