“The attorney general just wanted to underscore again the importance of these provisions that were enacted in the wake of the 9/11 attack. They’re still relevant to our effort to go after terrorists today like they were after 9/11,” McConnell told reporters.
But Barr also sparred with skeptics, primarily libertarian-leaningSens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), according to two people familiar with the meeting. Barr told Lee his criticisms of surveillance law is dangerous while Paul said that Americans shouldn’t be subject to secret FISA courts, one of the people said.
“Not everyone is in agreement that we should just leave it alone,” said an attendee at the lunch with Barr.
That comment extends across the Capitol, where House Democrats are pushing their own version of FISA reforms. On Wednesday House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) will begin advancing a reauthorization that would end the seizure of call records and extend roving wiretap and lone wolf surveillance authorities with some reforms.
Neither Senate Republicans nor Barr are likely to accept those changes anytime soon. And those dynamics have some fretting the programs will briefly expire, just as they did in 2015 when Paul and McConnell clashed over reforming the much-criticized bulk data collection program.
“I don’t even know if we’re going to do an extension. I think this is the beginning of the conversation. I’m not sure. Letting it lapse and then revisit it? I don’t know,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). A brief expiration of the law is “possible. I think that’s probably what’s going to happen.”
Senate Republicans prefer kicking a broad FISA debate to as late as 2022, when other pieces of the law expire. In the interim, Barr would make administrative changes to address complaints from conservatives that surveillance authorities were abused against Trump’s campaign — something the president continues to seethe over.
“You’ve got three provisions to deal with. I think it’d be smart to keep them in place. It would give us some time to work on FISA writ large, we’ve got three years,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is preparinghearings on FISA.
Barr “indicated his desire to do whatever he can to prevent the corruption and the abuses that we saw in the Crossfire Hurricane,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), referring to the counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign. “We’re not going to shoehorn a bunch of other unrelated things” into an extension before the March 15 deadline.
But a clean extension is no lay-up in the House, where progressives are eager to finally snuff out the collection of call records and metadata collection after more modest reforms ultimately passed in 2015 over McConnell’s objections.
The possibility of swallowing a clean extension is something senior Democrats have only just started to seriously discuss in recent days, according to Democratic aides. And with the House not back from a recess until Wednesday, Democratic leaders have been unable to take the temperature of the caucus.
There’s internal politics on both sides to contend with: a clean extension would likely be opposed by liberal Democrats and potentially even some Republicans, all of whom have been advocating for overhauling the current law in various ways.
And now Republicans have whiplash over the mixed messages about what the president wants — from a Wall Street Journal report over the weekend detailing White House hopes to completely overhaul the program to Barr saying Tuesday those reforms could be achieved administratively.
The House legislation also contains provisions generally supported by members of both parties, including repealing the controversial cell phone metadata program and reforming the FISA court. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) wrote to colleagues this month to say that he hopes “to bring a reauthorization to the floor during this work period” after the bill clears committee.
But privately, Republicans are hesitant to support a measure that Trump could publicly reject at any moment. And GOP lawmakers like House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-Ga.) have panned the proposal, saying it does nothing to address the FISA abuses related to Trump campaign aide Carter Page that were outlined in a damning December report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
Given those dynamics, fears are rising that nothing will happen at all before Congress goes on another recess on March 13. As Sen. Rick Scott observed dryly: “Things aren’t happening very fast up here.”
“A lot will happen between now and March 15. We may do a placeholder and take it past March 15. We’ve got to get this right,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “Anybody who reads the Horowitz report on misfire hurricane will understand what I’m talking about.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.