The Judiciary Committee has postponed a high-profile meeting Wednesday after a last-minute maneuver by a top committee Democrat threatened to sink a months-long effort to revise and reauthorize surveillance authorities due to expire next month.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) had been prepared Wednesday to offer five amendments that would reform the Watergate-era law, known as FISA, that senior House Democrats see as "poison pills" that would doom the bill in the House. Her push rankled top Democrats, who said her proposals would upend months of delicate negotiations that resulted in a bill backed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif).
The staffs of both committees had also consulted extensively with intelligence community officials and outside civil liberties advocates like the ACLU to forge a delicate compromise. The measure was expected to pass the committee Wednesday, setting up a House floor vote to reauthorize the program before it expires on March 15. That timeline is now in jeopardy as Democrats are forced to confront an unexpected division in their ranks.
There had been staff level discussions between Lofgren's staff and the committees negotiating the bill, who believed until Tuesday that there would be no amendment effort.
"The committee and Chairman Nadler have been working very carefully in intense negotiation for months with all the interest groups and had worked out a very carefully negotiated reform bill of FISA," one senior Democratic aide said, noting that the alliance between Nadler and Schiff had been the product of talks that occurred in earnest even as both committees were deeply involved in the impeachment process.
But before the meeting was postponed, Lofgren rejected the notion that her amendments jeopardized the measure's chances of passing the House.
"I reject that categorization of what we’re doing here," Lofgren said in a phone interview. "We’re making policy. This isn’t some game where side deals that are done in secret without the concurrence of the committees of jurisdiction is somehow binding on the members of the committee."
The FISA law includes provisions relied on by the FBI and NSA to aid terrorism investigations. Three of those provisions are due to expire on March 15. But the complexity of the law, its implications for civil liberties and recent questions about the FBI's handling of the FISA process raised in a watchdog report, have complicated effort to renew them.
President Donald Trump, in particular, is viewed as a wildcard in the debate. He has railed against his own intelligence officials for what he contends was an illegal FISA spying operation on his 2016 campaign. An inspector general's report in December described significant failures by the FBI in obtaining a FISA warrant to surveil Carter Page in late 2016, weeks after he departed the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser. Trump's allies in Congress have hammered the FBI and intelligence officials for those failures and suggested there should be major changes to the law to prevent abuses.
Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday spoke privately to Senate Republicans about reauthorizing FISA, telling them that the Trump administration could support extending it. Barr said he would make administrative changes to the law to mollify the president.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, accused Democrats of “putting our national security at risk with their stall tactics.”
Lofgren noted the amendments are pulled from her own bipartisan FISA reform bill that she has long championed and vocally supported.
"If we don’t take this opportunity to reform the FISA process we are missing an opportunity," Lofgren said. "There is bipartisan interest on the House side in reform and we ought to take advantage of that circumstance."
Lofgren said she hadn't spoken to Speaker Nancy Pelosi about her amendments, noting that Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee markup of the bill would be the "beginning of the process." She described her proposals as "modest" changes that shouldn't jeopardize the underlying legislation.
"This goes back decades," Lofgren said, pointing to the passage of the 2001 PATRIOT Act. "Many times we’ve had the chairmen, either Republican or Democratic chairmen, saying, ‘we have to hold off, otherwise the [House Intelligence Committee] people blow this up.’ And as a consequence of that, 20 years in, we haven’t reformed it. I’m done with that."
Senior House Democrats say the negotiated version of the bill represents the best chance to make reforms to FISA without alienating any of the stakeholders on the issue. The alternative, they say, may be a push to renew the status quo.
"A straight reauthorization would represent a lost opportunity to strengthen protections for civil liberties and the privacy of Americans through these new reforms,” said a House Intelligence Committee staffer.
In a follow-up interview after the markup was postponed, Lofgren called the initial bill a "puny reform" and said she will "soon" offer a separate bill that would revive one piece of the FISA law set to expire next month. Lofgren also declined to say whether she would once again press for her amendments if the markup is rescheduled for next week.
"I’m willing to talk to anybody who’s got a reasonable plan," she said. "The bill as introduced by the committee was not one I thought was worth supporting. Now, I’d like to do real reform."
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.