By Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Legislation extending surveillance authorities that the FBI sees as vital in fighting terrorism was thrown into doubt as President Donald Trump threatened a veto and Republican leaders and top liberal Democrats said they would oppose it.
House Democratic leaders abruptly adjourned without considering the bill, hours after saying there would be a vote Wednesday evening. In between, Trump said explicitly for the first time that he would veto the measure. A similar version of the legislation had drawn bipartisan support just weeks ago.
“If the FISA Bill is passed tonight on the House floor, I will quickly VETO it,” Trump tweeted, using the acronym for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “Our Country has just suffered through the greatest political crime in its history. The massive abuse of FISA was a big part of it!”
Trump had suggested Tuesday evening that he would oppose the measure, prompting Republicans who once backed the deal to follow Trump’s lead and say Wednesday that they would now vote against it.
The leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has about 70 Democratic House members, also said they would oppose the legislation, saying it lacked curbs on online surveillance without warrants.
Combined with strong GOP opposition, the Democrats’ defiance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested there might be enough dissent to sink the bill. It was unclear if Democratic leaders would try again Thursday to hold a vote, or if they would skip a vote and try to negotiate with the Senate on a final compromise.
“We cannot in good conscience vote for legislation that violates Americans’ fundamental right to privacy,” said the progressive caucus’ leaders, Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis.
The legislation first passed the House in March with broad bipartisan support after Attorney General William Barr negotiated a deal with Republican and Democratic House leaders. But that consensus crumbled Wednesday after the Justice Department came out against the bill, which was amended by the Senate. The Justice Department’s statement, by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, urged Trump to reject the bill.
Soon after, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said it was time to take a “pause” on the legislation.
The new impasse raised the potential for the surveillance powers to remain expired indefinitely. The provisions, which lapsed in March, allow the FBI to get a court order for business records in national security investigations and to conduct surveillance on a subject without establishing that they’re acting on behalf of an international terrorism organization. They also make it easier for investigators to continue eavesdropping on a subject who has switched cell phone providers to thwart detection.
Despite the sudden GOP switch, Democratic leaders said they would move forward with a vote anyway, arguing that very little had changed since 126 Republicans, including McCarthy, voted for it in March.
“Your flailing around to find a rationalization for your change of vote is sad,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told Republicans in a heated speech on the floor.
“The only thing that has changed,” Hoyer said, “is that Donald Trump has said vote no.”
With Republicans opposed, Pelosi needed to keep her caucus together to pass it. But losing the progressives — a group of lawmakers who have long opposed surveillance laws — made that a lot harder. On the floor, she pleaded with her colleagues to support the legislation to protect national security and pass reforms to protect civil liberties that were included in the original compromise.
“We have to have a bill,” Pelosi said. “If we don’t have a bill, then our civil liberties are less protected.”