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Road ahead: Surveillance powers deadline approaches amid coronavirus concerns

Legislative agenda could be sidelined if virus fears prompt changes

Congress is staring down a deadline to reauthorize three surveillance powers before they expire on March 15, but members will be negotiating that as the Capitol begins grappling with rapidly evolving coronavirus concerns.

Congress already cleared emergency funding to fight the coronavirus, but the illness will still be front of mind at the Capitol this week as confirmed cases of COVID-19 have emerged in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area and two lawmakers announced they’ll be staying home because they interacted with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said in separate statements Sunday evening they will take precautionary measures because they interacted at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, with a person who later tested positive for the virus.

[Cruz, Gosar to stay home as precaution after potential virus exposure]

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Gosar said on Twitter that he and three members of his senior staff are “officially under self-quarantine after sustained contact at CPAC” with the individual. In addition, the Republican lawmaker said he is closing his Washington office for the week.

“I am not currently experiencing any symptoms, nor is any member of my staff. However, in order to prevent any potential transmission, I will remain at my home in Arizona until the conclusion of the 14 day period following my interaction with this individual,” Gosar said.

An email to House GOP staffers Friday addressed rumors of coronavirus infections within the Capitol Hill community and offered additional guidance to help offices prepare and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Please be cautious when spreading any potential rumors of an outbreak or infected staff, as to not cause unnecessary panic,” instructed the email, issued by House Administration Committee ranking member Rep. Rodney Davis.

The email signaled significant investments were made to prepare the House for a potentially massive expansion of telework for House staffers, including the purchase of 1,000 laptops by the House Chief Administrative Officer.

FISA challenge

Republicans and Democrats in both chambers are still exchanging proposals on how to update the broader surveillance law that governs operation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as the deadline approaches.

“There are negotiations ongoing between Republicans and Democrats to try to come to an agreement on not only how to renew the FISA law but also how to make the reforms that are critical and necessary to the FISA law to address the abuses that we know happened,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said in his weekly floor colloquy with Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer.

The three key authorities in question include Section 215 orders that let authorities collect business and other records of individuals through the court. The roving wiretap provision lets the government get orders targeting people who frequently change phone lines or use burner devices in an effort to avoid traditional wiretaps on individual lines. Lone wolf provisions allow for the FISA court to issue targeting surveillance on suspected terrorists that operate outside of formal networks.

[Clock ticks to surveillance expiration with no FISA deal in sight]

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a member of both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, doesn’t think an overhaul of the authorities is possible this week and doesn’t want them to lapse.

“It’s not realistic to think that we can do reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act between now and March the 15th, so I think the most realistic thing would be let’s do a short-term extension,” Cornyn said Thursday.

A key lawmaker to watch on the FISA issue is Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, who objected to a last-minute extension effort in May 2015, which led to a brief lapse in authorities. He has stressed that the president does not want an extension without an overhaul effort.

A self-improvement measure for the House

Early in the week the House is expected to adopt a resolution that would begin the implementation of 45 bipartisan recommendations from the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

The recommendations are wide-ranging, from allowing more bulk purchases to improving access to congressional websites for individuals with disabilities, and implementing technical training for members and staff.

The measure will come to the floor under suspension of the rules, a fast-track process that requires two-thirds support for passage.

[The fix-up-Congress committee takes on a fresh agenda for 2020]

Later in the week the House will vote on two immigration measures that Democrats introduced in response to White House travel bans enacted in 2017 and expanded earlier this year.

One bill the House will consider would limit presidential authority to suspend the entry of non-citizens coming to America. The bill was introduced following a proclamation signed by President Donald Trump in January that ordered a fresh wave of travel restrictions on six countries, suspending immigrant visas for Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, and Nigeria. The remaining two countries, Sudan and Tanzania, would no longer be able to apply to receive a diversity visa.

Republicans oppose the measure, calling it a ploy to rebuke the president and that it would strip too much power away from the White House. Scalise also raised concerns about timing of the measure as outbreaks of COVID-19 emerge globally.

“Not only does [this bill] limit the president’s ability to protect us from having countries be able to send terrorists into our nation, now it would limit the president’s ability to respond to a health crisis like the coronavirus,” Scalise said Friday.

Hoyer responded to Scalise, specifying that the bill would not preclude travel limitations on the basis of health or safety.

The second bill up for consideration would allow individuals who are subjected to secondary inspection at ports of entry to receive access to counsel or another interested party. The measure would not guarantee or provide counsel, but only allow an individual to contact their own counsel or another person who may assist them.

Sponsor Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., cited examples of Iranian individuals with valid visas who were put on planes leaving the U.S. without any recourse as the impetus for this bill.

“Counsel may not be a necessity,” said Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler during the February markup in the committee. “All this says is you’re entitled to a counsel.”

Republicans say this written requirement could potentially overwhelm the already stressed immigration system.

Energy bill action expected after impasse

The the Senate will continue work on a bipartisan package of energy bills, after disagreements about amendments and coronavirus emergency legislation delayed action last week.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on a substitute amendment that Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced to the underlying energy bill and on the bill itself. Murkowski said that substitute includes 18 new amendments, from Republicans and Democrats, and a vote would occur Monday night.

Murkowski said Thursday that she and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., the top committee Democrat, have been working to reach a deal behind closed doors. Members jockeyed to get their amendments — now about 200, according to Murkowski — into the energy bill.

[Tangled in amendments and process, Senate energy bill pushed to next week]

If enacted as drafted, the bill would address a swatch of energy and technology topics, including utility-scale battery storage, cybersecurity, critical minerals, natural gas exports, infrastructure licensing, and nuclear power.

Niels Lesniewski, Tanvi Misra, Kathleen Bever and Benjamin J. Hulac contributed to this report.

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