House Calls Off Beleaguered Vote on US Surveillance Law

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Md., second from right, walks off of the House floor on April 23. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Having scrapped a late-night vote on the legislation just hours earlier, House leadership on Thursday abandoned efforts to pass a bill extending three provisions of a controversial surveillance law. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer made the announcement on Thursday morning, after previous schedules indicated leadership expected votes on the surveillance bill sometime during the day. The night before, House leadership abruptly abandoned plans to vote on the legislation amid opposition from Republicans and progressive Democrats. 

“At the request of the speaker of the House, I am withdrawing consideration of the FISA Act,” Hoyer said in a statement on the bill Thursday morning. “The two-thirds of the Republican party that voted for this bill in March have indicated they are going to vote against it now. I am told they are doing so at the request of the president. I believe this to be against the security interest of the United States and the safety of the American people.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to House Democrats on Thursday that leadership intends to take the bill to conference, the process through which the two houses of Congress hammer out differences in pieces of legislation each passed in slightly different forms. 

“The administration — particularly some in the Justice Department — would like nothing better than to not have a bill,” Pelosi said in the letter. “Without a bill, there would be none of the bill’s important protections for civil liberties. Without a bill there would be all the leeway in the world not to protect Americans’ privacy.” 

Pelosi told reporters at a press conference later Thursday she did not want to advance such a sensitive piece of legislation along party lines and with no chance of overriding a presidential veto. 

“This has always been bipartisan, and I don’t have any intention of departing from the fact that on FISA bills we are always going to have to go in a bipartisan way,” Pelosi said. 

The announcement marks the end of a tumultuous week for the push to extend expired provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which empowers the federal government to conduct surveillance and access certain records as part of intelligence investigations. 

Though House leadership has pinned the failure of the bill on House Republicans, Democrats have a majority in the chamber and could have pushed the bill through with unified support in the party.

The House voted in March to extend the provisions, but needed to vote again after the Senate made changes to the version it passed earlier this month. 

President Donald Trump urged Republicans to vote against the reauthorization push and threatened a veto on Wednesday evening if the measure did clear the House. After Trump first voiced his opposition on Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy asked Democratic leadership to pull the bill from consideration.

The Senate changes included an amendment from Senators Mike Lee and Patrick Leahy — a Utah Republican and Vermont Democrat, respectively —that required the secretive intelligence court that hears requests from the government to use its powers under FISA to appoint friends of the court in all cases that raise a “sensitive investigative matter.”  

In the House, Representatives Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, and Warren Davidson, an Ohio Republican, sought to include an amendment to bar the federal government from collecting internet search and browsing data. The amendment initially mirrored a measure pushed by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden that narrowly failed in the Senate, but negotiations limited its reach to Americans in the final version.

Though the amendment was a focus of Democrats keen on reforming federal surveillance laws, support for it fell apart after Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, indicated the change would still allow law enforcement to sweep up information that might incidentally include data from Americans. 

Eventually, House leadership prevented the amendment from coming to the floor for a vote, with Pelosi saying a bill without the Lofgren-Davidson change would be more likely to become law. 

Progressive and civil liberties groups jumped out against the amendment and underlying bill, and Representative Mark Pocan, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, publicly came out against the reauthorization effort in the hours before the anticipated vote.

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