This week: Senate juggles coronavirus with surveillance fight

The Senate is set to take up a reauthorization of lapsed intelligence programs as lawmakers talk off the floor about next steps on the coronavirus. 

The Senate action comes as the House has not yet said when it will come back to Washington, after Democratic leaders scrapped plans to return last week amid safety concerns. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has pledged that members will get a 72-hour notice before they have to return to vote. 

The Senate will take up a House-passed bill that would reauthorize three programs and make some changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn’t said what day the chamber will vote on the bill, which passed the House in March. 

But under a deal struck by leadership, when they take up the bill they will also vote on at least three amendments: One from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another from Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and a third from Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). McConnell has the potential of offering alternatives to each of the amendments. 

The surveillance programs lapsed in March amid a stalemate on how to address the expiring provisions of the USA Freedom Act, a 2015 law that overhauled the nation’s intelligence authorities. The Senate passed a short-term extension but it was not taken up by the House. 

The House-passed bill reauthorizes two of the programs: One dealing with “roving” wiretaps and another with “lone wolf” individuals who have no connection to a known terrorist organization. 

It also reauthorizes, with changes, Section 215, including ending a controversial call records program. 

GOP leadership is urging the Senate to take up and pass the House bill without changes. 

The House bill, which cleared that chamber in March in a 278-136 vote, will “increase transparency in the FISA process and respond to the shameful abuses of 2016 while preserving the toolbox that professionals use to defend us,” McConnell said from the Senate floor late last week

But the debate around the bill has become increasingly contentious after the Justice Department inspector general found 17 inaccuracies and omissions in the FISA warrant applications tied to former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. In an interim report on a broader FISA review, Horowitz’s team reviewed 29 FISA applications and found issues with each of them. 

The House bill makes some changes to FISA, including requiring the attorney general to sign off on warrant applications linked to an elected official. 

But lawmakers in both parties, including libertarian-minded Republicans and progressives, believe there need to be broader reforms to the court. 

If the Senate changes the House bill it will bounce back across the Capitol and need to be passed a second time. If it passes it without changes, it will go to President Trump’s desk, where it’s unclear if he will sign it. 


While the Senate is debating the intelligence programs on the floor, lawmakers are expected to continue to discuss the implementation of the nearly $3 trillion already allocated by Congress for the virus and potential next steps. 

McConnell and several GOP senators are calling for a “pause” before a potential “phase four” bill, which would be the fifth piece of legislation.

But White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Sunday that “informal” talks are underway on the next round of coronavirus relief, calling reports that no talks have happened between the White House and Democrats “simply not true.” 

“So it’s not that we’re not talking,” he said. “We are. It’s just informal at this stage,” he told ABC’s “This Week.” 

Kudlow said he and fellow White House adviser Kevin Hassett held a conference call last week with 50 House Democrats and Republicans to discuss ideas for next steps and will do the same Monday with senators from both parties.

Amid the informal discussions, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hear from four administration officials. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield; Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn will testify. 

Fauci, Hahn and Redfield are all expected to testify remotely after a White House staffer tested positive for COVID-19. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the committee, is also expected to oversee the hearing from his self-quarantine in Tennessee after a staff member in his office tested positive. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee will also hold a hearing on Tuesday on liability protections — a top priority for Republicans. 

McConnell has called the need for additional legal protections for employers a “red line” as Congress faces pressure from the business community over concerns that they could face a litany of lawsuits as the economy begins to reopen. 


Before the Senate takes up the surveillance bill McConnell has teed up votes on two nominations: Brian Montgomery to be deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Troy Edgar’s nomination to be the chief financial officer at the Department of Homeland Security. 

The Senate will hold an initial vote on Montgomery’s nomination on Monday evening.  

Tags Anthony Fauci Donald Trump Lamar Alexander Larry Kudlow Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Patrick Leahy Rand Paul Ron Wyden Steny Hoyer Steve Daines

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