House GOP leaders have been forced to punt the battle on renewing a key surveillance tool of the federal government into next year amid widespread disagreements on the contentious authority.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has been both credited with preventing terror attacks on U.S. soil and accused of being a vehicle for spying on U.S. citizens. It lets the government keep tabs on specific foreign nationals outside the country without first obtaining a warrant to do so, even if the party on the other side of those communications is an American on U.S. soil. Without Congress taking action, it expires at the end of this year.
The House began the week with plans to hold votes on two dueling FISA renewal proposals — one by the House Intelligence Committee, which makes minor changes, and another by the House Judiciary Committee that is vastly more restrictive. The plan was to send whichever got more support to the Senate.
That plan, dubbed ‘queen of the hill,’ came after both conservatives and progressives raised alarms over an extension of the program being included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which Congress also must pass by the end of this year.
However, that proposal quickly fell apart after a closed-door House GOP conference meeting to discuss FISA on Monday night.
‘This is not an appropriate time for queen of the hill,’ Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told reporters on Monday night. Issa argued that the House should take up the Judiciary bill given the committee’s purview over the Patriot Act, which created Section 702.
‘We’re being asked in the NDAA to extend until April. That inherently gives us the time over the Christmas holiday into early January to work out these details,’ Issa said. ‘I don’t believe in bringing two very different bills after nine months of the committees working together and agreeing on quite a bit, and then, at the end, have this big a difference.’
Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., a member of the Intelligence Committee, argued that the Judiciary bill’s severe restrictions on the program would leave the U.S. more vulnerable.
‘We can’t cannibalize this tool. We can’t neuter it to the point where it’s not an effective way to protect us. But we’ve got… to get the reforms. We’ve got to get the accountability, especially on the FBI,’ Garcia said.
A plan to advance the two bills via ‘queen of the hill’ on Tuesday was seemingly abandoned overnight, with Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., denying that he changed his mind on strategy during a press conference that morning.
‘This isn’t some minor policy or law. This is about keeping Americans safe. And so we take the responsibility seriously. As recently as last night, we were in a room with all the interested parties and House Republicans there, and there’s still some disagreement about a couple of those key provisions,’ Johnson said.
‘I am not one who wants to rush this. I don’t think we can make a mistake. I think we’ve got to do it right. And so we’re going to allow the time to do that.’
However, Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Mo., a conservative who supports the Judiciary bill, said he opposed the clean FISA extension in the NDAA and would have preferred the House solve the issue before the new year.
‘I’m not a fan of it. I’m not going to support a clean extension of FISA,’ Burlison said of the plan to punt to 2024. ‘I’ve heard the arguments from the Intel Committee, and they’re being pretty hostile towards the [Judiciary] bill. But the end of the day, the Judiciary committee’s position is more about the rights of the individual and the rights of Americans.’
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a moderate Republican, said he sees ‘the pros and cons’ of waiting to fight the battle until next year. He added, ‘I do think [Intel Committee Chair Mike Turner’s] bill offers reforms that protects citizens but it still allows us to click on our enemies. I fear that [Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan’s bill] goes too far.’