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FISA debate tests Republicans’ patience with House speaker

Conservatives voice procedural frustrations under Mike Johnson’s leadership

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, File

FISA debate tests Republicans’ patience with House speaker

On Thursday evening, the House Rules Committee approved a familiar-looking bill. The Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act, which aims to overhaul one of the country’s most powerful spy tools—had already made its way through the committee and almost reached the House floor the day before.

And then it failed. Nineteen Republicans went against their party’s leadership to derail the measure.

By Friday morning, the House was debating the revised bill, which largely shares the same language as its previous iteration. Its only difference is a tweak to its lifespan: a reduction from a five-year reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act down to two years. The legislation deals with one of the most controversial methods used to protect the United States from terrorism, warrantless surveillance. And the near-failure of the bill shows how controversies over leadership and lawmaking among House Republicans are overshadowing House Speaker Mike Johnson’s legislative priorities.

Just a few hours after the failed vote on Wednesday, House Republicans met behind closed doors in the Capitol basement to hammer out next steps on the surveillance law, which was set to expire April 19 without reauthorization. Many of the 19 Republicans who voted against the measure did so because they believed Johnson had seen dissenting factions coming from a mile away and set them up to fail.

Members leaving the room vented their frustrations.

“What you can’t accept is a predetermined outcome,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., told reporters after the meeting. “It’s all been determined before you even get to vote. It’s unacceptable.”

Perry had advocated for heightened restrictions on the use of FISA surveillance. The law’s current form allows intelligence agencies to collect the private communications of foreign targets outside the country. Sometimes, however, those targets and the people they communicate with overlap with people inside the United States.

Perry and other legislators wanted to require the intelligence community to get a warrant any time Americans’ communications might be collected under FISA. While Johnson did not take a public position, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a member of the powerful Rules Committee, told me the speaker revealed his opposition to the warrant requirement in private exchanges.

“They have convinced the speaker,” Massie said, referencing the idea’s opponents. “He’s said enough to people and me personally that that’s clear. We had a discussion, yeah.”

Massie estimated that 40-50 Republicans passionately supported a warrant requirement and roughly 20-30 passionately opposed the idea on the grounds that it would hamstring intelligence agencies.

Johnson included the warrant requirement as an add-on separate from the main bill. Perry and other legislators argued that by forcing the language to stand on its own, Johnson had ultimately secured its defeat. Even if the add-ons somehow passed the House, the Democratic-controlled Senate could reject them while still reauthorizing FISA.

“The majority of the conference wants or would be okay with a warrant [requirement]. And you’re trying to pass something that actually isn’t congruent with the will of the conference. Now if you were a little slicker at it, if you were John Boehner, you might get away with that,” Massie said, referencing the speaker of the House who led Republicans from 2011 to 2015.

Although it may not be a part of the main bill, the warrant requirement will also accompany the new version of the bill to the floor again as its own separate amendment. Massie said that the shorter, two-year window of authorization may help the bill win more votes if the bill’s other reforms aren’t enough.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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