Johnson floats floor showdown as GOP divides over spy powers
Speaker Mike Johnson is threatening a House floor showdown over a controversial surveillance program as Congress remains divided on the path forward.
The move would once again force the party’s deep divisions into the public eye. Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) have negotiated behind the scenes for months but failed to unify behind one bill that would avoid a fight involving one of the House GOP’s most frequent targets: The FBI.
And lawmakers are running short on time. They have until the end of the year to reauthorize a surveillance program known as Section 702, which is meant to target foreigners but sometimes sweeps up the communications of Americans.
During a closed-door conference meeting on Tuesday, Johnson said that he could bring Jordan’s and Turner’s two competing bills up for a vote in a rare procedural gambit known as “King of the Hill” if there isn’t a consensus over Section 702, according to two Republicans in the room. Under that gambit, leadership can bring competing proposals to the floor as amendments, and whichever proposal is the last one that comes up for a vote and still gets a majority is the one that gets adopted. It allows leadership to try to influence the outcome by putting its preferred proposal last.
Johnson, according to the two Republicans, told his conference on Tuesday that Turner and Jordan remain at “loggerheads.” A spokesperson for the speaker declined to comment on any potential plans to bring both bills to the floor.
“We have a Turner version and a Jordan version. … He’s going to let them both win the conference over,” one of the Republicans in the room told POLITICO.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee and Intelligence Committee spent months talking behind-the-scenes to try to iron out a path forward, with the two panels agreeing on several areas — including new reporting and auditing requirements, penalties for surveillance violations and changes to a shadowy surveillance court.
But the two remain divided over when a warrant requirement should be needed to search 702-collected data for Americans. The Judiciary Committee is proposing a broad warrant requirement that would cover most of those searches, while the Intelligence Committee is proposing mandating a warrant only for “evidence of a crime” searches, which don’t deal with foreign intelligence and are only a small subset of overall searches.
“There’s still conversations on different approaches and the reforms. I think if you look at both committees, there’s over 40 reforms that both committees agree on,” said Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) when asked if Johnson played referee on which 702 bill to support. “It’s a few things and obviously the ones that are the final piece are trying to work through.”
The Judiciary Committee is expected to mark up its bill on Wednesday and the Intelligence Committee is expected to consider its bill Thursday morning. And Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), an Intelligence Committee member, added that which bill comes to the floor “is a decision the speaker is going to have to make.”
Even as the two Ohio Republicans work on their separate long-term reauthorizations, lawmakers are looking to buy themselves more time to work out their differences. Leadership is expected to attach a short-term extension to a sweeping defense bill, according to three people familiar with the matter, though they cautioned that there was an active effort to try to get it removed.
Some House Republicans said they feared the clash over the surveillance power could wreak further havoc on the passage of that annual defense package, the National Defense Authorization Act.
GOP leadership could try to sidestep that by bringing up the defense bill under suspension — which would require a higher threshold and a significant amount of Democratic support, but would also avoid a rule vote that conservatives could use to hijack the floor. If leaders can’t pass it under suspension, they’ll need near unity to get the defense bill to the floor on their own — something members and aides have predicted they won’t get if a surveillance extension is attached.
“FISA expires at the end of the year. There were promises that Mike [Johnson] made that he would not let FISA 702 lapse. But Judiciary and Intel can’t get to an agreement. There’s threats that if FISA gets put in NDAA, then they may not have the votes for the NDAA. If FISA doesn’t get reauthorized, then there was a threat” to vote against the rule by one House Republican, said one GOP lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“So we’re back to the circular firing squad,” this member added, referring to conservatives’ past strategy of tanking rules.
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