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Lawmakers prep for House floor battle to derail FISA surveillance bill

010918 Floor clash looms on FISA pic
The House Rules Committee has signaled it could allow debate and vote on an amendment authored by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that aims to make significant reforms to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is hoping to derail legislation that would reauthorize a key counter-terrorism tool once it hits the floor this week, and replace it with language that would boost privacy protections for Americans.

The House Rules Committee has signaled it could allow debate and vote on an amendment authored by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that aims to make significant reforms to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA allows intelligence officials to spy on communications of non-citizens outside of the United States, but members of both parties are hoping to put new restraints in place rather than just renew the program again.

Amash and the Republicans and Democrats who support his proposal are seeking more significant reforms to the FISA provision and will offer an amendment to the House bill that more strictly limits the way intelligence officials can collect communications that involve Americans. And that language is likely to get a vote.

“I think that we are trying to work through some issues and one of the issues is that one,” Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, told the Washington Examiner Tuesday when asked about Amash's proposal. Sessions said he will recommend the floor vote allow an amendment and signaled it would be the Amash language.

“I have every reason to believe that [Amash] expects we would do that,” Sessions said.

Conservative opposition to a renewal of Section 702 is growing this week, even as House lawmakers prepare to vote on it. Many conservatives have expressed support for the Amash language, which would impose new restrictions and reauthorize the program for four years, in contrast to the six-year authorization in the main bill.

For example, the House Freedom Caucus announced Tuesday that it does not back the House measure “without significant reforms to ensure that Americans' Fourth Amendment rights are protected.” The HFC will instead back the Amash amendment, the group announced.

Some of the opposition relates to how the law was used in the Obama administration, which picked up names of President Trump's transition team as part of its surveillance, and then unmasked those officials in some cases. But several Democrats also support Amash's language.

Temporary authority for the 702 provision expires on January 19, although intelligence officials believe they can use the spying tool until April even if expires.

The Amash amendment, called the USA Rights Act, has the bipartisan support of 44 lawmakers in both chambers as well as the backing of outside conservative groups including Tea Party affiliated FreedomWorks.

Specifically, his proposal would add a number of new restrictions to the 702 section of FISA, including one that would end “abouts” collections that currently go beyond the sender fields on electronic communications to include the contents of the messages. It would also stop so-called reverse targeting of Americans who are caught up in surveillance of foreign communications.

The measure, which is sponsored in the Senate by Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would end backdoor, warrantless searches of the vast data collected under the FISA law, and would strengthen the oversight of the FISA courts and allows outside challenges to the constitutionality of the FISA authority.

Amash and backers of the amendment plan a Wednesday press conference to promote the measure, Amash announced Tuesday.

“With the expiration of #FISA702, Congress has the opportunity to reverse the government’s illegal erosion of our #4thAmendment-secured right to be free from warrantless searches and seizures,” Amash tweeted. “There’s only one bill circulating in the House that does that: the #USARIGHTSAct.”

Advocates of the House GOP version say their bill makes needed reforms to the “abouts” collection and strengthens the requirement for obtaining search warrants.

“The amendment is an attempt to kill Section 702 altogether,” House Intelligence Committee spokesman Jack Langer said of the Amash amendment. “It’s not supported by any of the House or Senate committees of jurisdiction or by the White House, and it has no chance of becoming law. The House bill is a compromise bill, and the amendment is an attempt to kill that compromise and eradicate a program that the entire Intelligence Community agrees is absolutely crucial for tracking terrorists.”