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House Republicans revolt against spy agency bill, signaling trouble for Johnson

A small faction of House Republicans is once again blocking key legislation and posing a critical test of Speaker Mike Johnson’s ability to hold on to his gavel.

And their actions threw the House once more into chaos, as Republicans sniped among themselves and some far-right members threatened to let funding for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — a post-9/11 measure that strengthened the surveillance powers of U.S. intelligence services — expire on April 19.

Nineteen far-right members on Wednesday opposed a procedural hurdle known as a rule, preventing FISA and three other proposals from being debated and ultimately voted on this week.

Hard-liners had telegraphed that they would sink the procedural vote if the House Rules Committee did not include a change to the legislation to reshape how those services surveil malicious foreign actors, by ensuring that they don’t spy on U.S. citizens swept up in the communications-gathering without a warrant.

And they may have been emboldened by a Wednesday morning social media post from former president Donald Trump decrying the FISA law.


Trump supporters falsely claim that without reforms, the “weaponized” Justice Department under President Biden will continue to target Trump and other conservatives. Spy agencies, however, do not have authority to surveil U.S. citizens under FISA.

Asked whether Trump’s influence is hurting the reauthorization process, Johnson (R-La.) told reporters, “I’ll just say that it’s never helpful for the majority party to take down its own rules.”

The FISA vote marks the seventh time this year that Republicans have sunk rules before legislation can get to the floor. The tactic is now common after the majority passed procedural hurdles without backlash for two decades, raising questions about the House GOP’s ability to govern and Johnson’s control over his rank-and-file members. Historically, the majority has supported passing rules to allow floor debate, even if they oppose a bill on final passage. The problem has led to Johnson forcing substantive legislation onto the “suspension calendar,” where he relies on a two-thirds majority, including Democrats, to pass it.

Figuring out how to reauthorize FISA as privacy and national security hawks war within the House GOP conference poses more tricky math for Johnson. Yet his speakership is on the line as Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.) and other far-right members of the House Freedom Caucus weigh whether it’s worth ousting him based on how he navigates legislation that would reauthorize FISA and send additional funding to foreign allies like Ukraine and Israel.

Republicans left their second party meeting about FISA on Wednesday without agreeing on a path forward. The one-hour gathering was described by lawmakers as “tense,” “a venting session,” and “a s—show.” Several Republicans lambasted colleagues for opposing the rule, which has now frozen any legislative action this week.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) was the sharpest critic, asking leadership to reimpose norms that would lead to punishment against more than two dozen Republicans who vote against such procedural motions essential to governing the House.

“You reestablish the principle and then levy sanctions against those who would violate that principle,” McClintock told reporters afterward. “That could affect committee assignments, that could affect their membership in the Republican conference.”

According to multiple people in the room, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail a private meeting, Johnson was forceful in his reminder that sinking the rule doesn’t mean FISA won’t ultimately get renewed. But the fight is also delaying a key vote on Ukraine funding slated to take place next week.

Johnson had planned for the reauthorization — which currently does not include the warrant provision sought by hard-liners and proposed by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) — to go through the Rules Committee this week and allow votes on several bills that could amend it before final passage. But the Rules Committee on Wednesday did not adopt Davidson’s proposal, with leadership promising a stand-alone vote on it at a later date.

Both FISA and Ukraine have fiercely divided Republicans, who have has been unable to find consensus as the far-right pushes for ideological purity for bills that must also be approved by a Democratic Senate and White House.

“He is the leader of the opposition party against the Biden administration, and we expect him to lead that way, not to pass the Biden administration’s agenda,” Greene said after meeting with Johnson earlier Wednesday. Greene — who supported the rule but intends to vote against final passage — is threatening to move on a motion to oust the speaker if he puts legislation to fund Ukraine on the floor or does not include a warrant provision in the final FISA legislation.

In the meeting, she pushed the speaker to stop consideration of the current FISA bill, a warning he did not heed.

“If he funds the deep state and the warrantless spying on Americans, he’s telling Republican voters all over the country that the continued behavior will happen more, spying on President Trump, and spying on hundreds of thousands of Americans,” she said. “This is not going to be tolerated by Republicans.”

Those on the far right have been upset that Johnson, a self-declared MAGA Republican, has flipped on policy issues he previously voted against.

Johnson told reporters that he did back warrant reform as a member of the Judiciary Committee after seeing “the terrible abuses” of the FBI on the matter. But as speaker, he now receives the highest levels of intelligence and has come to “understand the necessity of Section 702 of FISA and how important it is for national security.

“It gave me a different perspective,” he said. “That’s part of the process, you have to be fully informed.”

The divisions over the FISA reauthorization stem from a debate over whether to amend Section 702 of the legislation. The post-9/11 provision gave U.S. spy agencies the ability to surveil only noncitizens abroad who are suspected of threatening national security. At issue is whether spy agencies can analyze communications by Americans who may have interacted with the foreign threat, which privacy advocates on the far-right and left say is unconstitutional.

Many Republicans are looking to reform FISA, acknowledging that spy agencies have at times misused their authority. But far-right members appear to have misconstrued the agency’s powers, often speaking in platitudes and falsely charging that U.S. agencies are purposely spying on Americans. National security hawks have called out their colleagues for not understanding how Section 702 works, and claim that requiring such warrants would severely affect agencies’ ability to thwart potential terrorist activity.

The two factions have been sparring for months on the issue, leading House GOP leadership to twice delay consideration of measures and pass extensions preventing the reauthorization from lapsing.

Without a solution, House Republicans expressed annoyance that they will ultimately have to pass another FISA extension without changes or take up any bipartisan bill sent out by the Senate. Those furthest to the right favor allowing FISA to lapse instead of supporting any measure that does not include their demands.

“Anybody who supports shutting down FISA and making us blind to terrorist threats will equally own future calamities that are certain to come if we let our guard down,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote in a statement following the House’s failed vote.

Mariana Alfaro and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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