Progressives oppose spending stopgap measure over surveillance authority extension

A handful of star progressives in the House on Tuesday opposed a resolution to put off an impending government shutdown over a provision included in it that would extend government surveillance authorities for three months.

Overall, the lawmakers’ small revolt did not kill the continuing resolution (CR); it passed 231-192 and only 10 Democrats voted against it. But Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) all pushed their colleagues to vote “no” on the CR throughout the day, claiming they do not believe the Trump administration should be allowed to surveil U.S. citizens for another three months.

“I cannot in good conscience vote in favor of a CR that reauthorizes unconstitutional mass surveillance authorities, especially under a President who has retweeted images of his opponents jailed and suggests anyone who disagrees with him is a criminal,” Tlaib said in a statement to The Hill.

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The last-minute addition to the CR would give Congress 90 more days to debate whether it wants to reauthorize several government surveillance provisions first enacted under the controversial Patriot Act. One of those provisions, known as Section 215, enables the government to access phone records on millions of Americans every year during terrorism investigations. 

The National Security Agency (NSA) revealed earlier this year that it shuttered the phone records program amid enormous technical difficulties.  

“It has been 17 months since the public learned the Call Detail Records program was fundamentally broken and being used to unlawfully spy on innocent people, and a year since it was shut down by the NSA,” Sean Vitka, counsel for civil liberties group Demand Progress, said in a statement on Tuesday. “It is a massive dereliction of duty to reauthorize these authorities for any period of time without fundamental fixes.”

Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), who recently raised concerns about reauthorizing Section 215, also voted against the CR alongside Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib. 

Earlier this month, a group of 20 progressive Democratic lawmakers led by Blumenauer and Tlaib called for an end to the government’s mass phone data collection under Section 215, staking out their position in an upcoming fight around the bill that could reauthorize the controversial program. The program was originally set to expire on Dec. 15, but the CR would extend that timeline until March 15. 

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“I believe that reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act poses such a grave threat to Americans, especially people of color, that I led a letter to the House Judiciary Committee opposing its reauthorization before robust, progressive reforms were made to prevent the continued misuse of its broad and intrusive reach,” Tlaib said in the statement.

The provision extending Section 215 was added to the CR late on Monday, Ocasio-Cortez told The Hill, leaving lawmakers with little time to weigh in on whether they want to extend the surveillance authorities.

A source familiar with the situation told The Hill on Monday that lawmakers included the 90-day extension in the CR because they felt the December deadline was too tight. The key lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee quickly realized there was not enough time for Congress to decide what to do about the surveillance provisions before Dec. 15 when they sat down to negotiate this month, the source said, noting impeachment has taken up a lot of the lawmakers’ energy.

A coalition of civil liberties and progressive groups on Tuesday sent a letter urging lawmakers to oppose the CR, writing, “Extending these authorities for any period of time absent major reform, as the Continuing Resolution does, reflects an abandonment of Congress’s most basic responsibilities.” 

Last year, the program allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect over 430 million call detail records in total. Under Section 215, the government is not able to see the contents of text messages or listen in on phone calls, but they can see metadata about when calls are placed and to whom. 

Section 215 also enables the government to collect business records without a warrant and surveil targets across multiple cell phone or communication devices during terrorism investigations. 

Ocasio-Cortez said she’s been working since Monday to tell her progressive colleagues that the CR will allow the call detail records program to extend beyond December.

But several progressives who signed onto Tlaib’s previous letter told The Hill that they supported the CR because it was their only option to ensure the government doesn’t shut down.   

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in a statement said, “Although I do have serious concerns with reauthorizing Section 215, we must focus on the bigger picture here.  Therefore, I plan to vote yes on today’s CR in order to keep the government open and ensure that my constituents continue to receive their Social Security benefits and have access to the vital services they require like community health centers.”

“I’m supporting [the CR],” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who signed the previous letter, told The Hill. “We’re taking it in its entirety, and hopefully in three months, we’ll get a chance to correct some of that. But right now, I don’t see another option.” 

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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