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Democrats pull bill to reauthorize government surveillance powers after Trump threatens to veto it

CNN logo CNN 5/28/2020 By Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju, CNN
a clock tower in front of a building: The Capitol dome is seen early Wednesday morning before Amb. William Taylor And Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State George Kent testify at the first public impeachment hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. © Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images The Capitol dome is seen early Wednesday morning before Amb. William Taylor And Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State George Kent testify at the first public impeachment hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC.

House Democrats scrapped a vote to reauthorize national security surveillance authorities that have been expired since March after Republicans revolted from the measure following tweets from President Donald Trump urging them to oppose it.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Thursday morning that he was pulling the bill to renew three authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act from the floor at the request of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a recognition the votes were not there to pass it.

Instead, the House voted 284-122 to enter into a conference committee with the Senate to negotiate a new version of the bill.

The decision to punt on the vote came after Trump dove into the House's FISA debate on Tuesday evening, calling on Republicans to oppose the bill. Soon thereafter, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy asked Democratic leaders to pull the bill from the floor, and House GOP leaders urged their members to vote against the measure.

The swift move in opposition to the FISA renewal was all the more remarkable because the bill the House was voting on Wednesday was largely the same measure that passed 278-136 in March, with 126 Republicans voting in favor. Those voting yes included McCarthy and some of Trump's closest House allies, Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Devin Nunes of California, who had negotiated a bipartisan deal on reauthorizing the FISA provisions with Attorney General William Barr and Democratic leaders.

The only change made to the bill was the addition of a Senate bipartisan amendment from GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, which added additional legal protections and review to the FISA court process.

Democrats didn't have enough votes in their caucus to make up the for loss of Republican support, as 75 Democrats opposed the bill in March primarily over concerns about civil liberties protections. Any hope Democratic leaders may have had to convince those Democrats to back the bill evaporated Wednesday after the Congressional Progressive Caucus issued a statement opposing the bill.

Pelosi charged at a news conference Thursday that Republican support for the bill "disappeared by a tweet -- the twinkle of a tweet." She said in a letter to House Democrats that the House would "go to conference in order to ensure that all of the views of all members of our caucus are represented in the final product."

Trump has railed on FISA for months as a result of the Russia probe and the misconduct surrounding warrants obtained on a former campaign adviser, though the expired authorities are unrelated to the FISA court itself. Trump issued a veto threat over Twitter Wednesday after telling Republicans to vote against it, and he celebrated the bill's failure in the House on Thursday.

"Thank you to our GREAT Republican Congressmen & Congresswomen on your incredibly important blockage last night of a FISA Bill that would just perpetuate the abuse that produced the Greatest Political Crime In the History of the U.S., the Russian Witch-Hunt. Fantastic Job!" Trump tweeted.

Trump called House Minority Whip Steve Scalise Wednesday morning and asked the Louisiana Republican to whip against the bill, according to a source familiar with the call. GOP leaders and the whip team then mounted an aggressive effort to prevent Republicans from defecting, as Democrats were hoping some GOP members would vote for the measure.

Scalise was among the Republicans who had voted for the similar version of the bill in March.

The bill's withdrawal was the latest hurdle for legislation renewing authorities from the 2001 Patriot Act. The measure has been squeezed both by FISA opponents who have pushed for more civil liberties protections and by the President and his allies furious over the role of the FISA court in the Russia investigation and the misconduct with warrants obtained on former Trump adviser Carter Page.

Now the expired FISA surveillance powers for federal law enforcement are at risk of remaining lapsed indefinitely. The three authorities -- a "business records" provision allowing the collection of tangible things in national security investigations, a roving wiretaps provision and a lone wolf provision -- have been expired since March 15.

Republican leaders said more is now needed to be done to address the problems with the FISA warrant process, and the problems with the warrants obtained on Page. The House's agreement in March included new rules surrounding FISA warrants in an attempt to address the concerns Trump and his allies raised, but Republicans say those are no longer sufficient.

"Every day we learn something more. Shouldn't we take an opportunity to correct that?" McCarthy said Thursday, raising issues with "unmasking" documents that have recently been declassified, which are unrelated to the FISA authorities in the bill.

House Democratic leadership initially pushed forward with the vote on FISA Wednesday despite the Republican opposition that emerged. One day earlier, the legislation had appeared to be on a glidepath to House passage on Tuesday, with House Democratic leaders agreeing to an amendment from Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California and GOP Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio that would have limited the collection of internet search history on US citizens and permanent residents.

After the opposition sprang up from Trump, congressional Republicans and the Justice Department, Democrats dropped their plans to vote on the amendment, instead putting forward the version of the bill that had passed the Senate 80-16, in an attempt to carve a path to pass the measure.

The twists and turns of the legislation -- and the lengthy expiration of the national security authorities -- is a sign of the concerns within both parties over law enforcement surveillance. It's an issue that's long cut across party lines, combining conservative civil libertarians with liberal Democrats who have pushed back on FISA surveillance powers. Trump's railing on FISA over the Page surveillance warrants has only fueled the opposition and difficulty in renewing the authorities.

In March, 126 Republicans voted for the FISA legislation, following the deal that Trump's allies and Barr cut with Democrats in a rare showing of bipartisanship.

After an objection from FISA opponents in the Senate to quickly pass the House's bill in March, the Senate approved a renewal of the FISA authorities this month, adding the amendment from Lee and Leahy, which required another vote in the House.

The Justice Department opposed the amendment the Senate added to the legislation, saying it "would unacceptably degrade our ability to conduct surveillance of terrorists, spies and other national security threats." But DOJ had not threatened a veto of the Senate bill until it issued a statement Wednesday, backing up Trump.

At a Rules Committee meeting Wednesday, Jordan expressed his general support for the legislation, but he also said he understood the President's position.

"He is frustrated by this process," Jordan said.

"Without presidential support," said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, "this is very unlikely to pass."

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.

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