WASHINGTON (AP) — Legislation to extend surveillance authorities that the FBI sees as vital in fighting terrorism was thrown into doubt Wednesday as President Donald Trump, the Justice Department and congressional Republicans all came out in opposition.
The legislation passed the House with bipartisan support in March after Attorney General William Barr negotiated a deal with Republican and Democratic House leaders. But that consensus began to crumble after Trump signaled he would veto the latest version of the bill, which was amended by the Senate.
The Justice Department on Wednesday announced its opposition to the legislation, including a proposed House amendment that would place restrictions on searches of Americans’ internet browsing history. Hours later, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said it was time to take a “pause” on the legislation.
The Republican criticism could be a fatal blow to the prospects of renewing the surveillance law, as the bill also faces opposition from some Democrats concerned about civil liberties.
The House had been expected to start voting on the legislation Wednesday, but it was unclear how Democratic leaders would move forward. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters that “we will act upon it today, one way or another.”
But the new impasse raised the potential for the surveillance powers to remain expired indefinitely.
Trump, still seething over the Russia investigation, implored all House Republicans in a Tuesday evening tweet to vote no on the bill “until such time as our Country is able to determine how and why the greatest political, criminal, and subversive scandal in USA history took place!”
The Justice Department said it opposes both the proposed House amendment to restrict internet searches and language added by the Senate earlier this month to boost third-party oversight to protect individuals in some surveillance cases.
The statement, by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, said the latest version of the bill would “weaken national security tools while doing nothing to address the abuses” identified by the Justice Department inspector general in his report on the FBI investigation into ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. The department urged Trump to veto the legislation.
McCarthy told reporters that the bill won’t be signed into law because both the attorney general and the president have questions, so it was time to take a “deep breath.” He said lawmakers passed the bill with bipartisan majorities before and should try again to negotiate a compromise.
“If the Democrats bring this bill up they’re just playing politics,” McCarthy said. “And this is not something to play politics with.”
The statements underscored the tortuous process Congress has faced in renewing the surveillance powers in the wake of an inspector general report that documented serious errors and mistakes in how the FBI used its authorities during the Russia investigation. Those problems included errors and omissions in applications the FBI submitted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser.
Republicans have historically been hawkish on preserving surveillance powers in the name of national security. But Trump’s GOP allies have joined the president over the last year in demanding that any renewal of the FBI’s powers be accompanied by significant new restrictions.
The provisions that expired 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.
The powers are not directly related to the errors uncovered during the Russia investigation. But Republican lawmakers — and some Democratic civil liberties advocates — have seized on those problems in demanding reforms.
The House passed its version of the bill in March, but Congress left without resolving differences, so the provisions expired. The Senate passed a separate bill last week, including with the amendment to boost third-party oversight.
The Senate fell short by one vote of adding a separate amendment, sponsored by Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Steve Daines of Montana, that would prevent federal law enforcement from obtaining internet browsing information or search history without seeking a warrant.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., announced Tuesday that Democrats had agreed on a similar, but tweaked, amendment that they would offer to the House bill. But that amendment faced opposition from the Justice Department and from Wyden, who said in a statement that the House version would not “enact true protections for Americans’ rights against dragnet collection of online activity.”