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GOP’s Battle Over Surveillance Act Will Spill Over into the New Year

Hitting a Roadblock

Credit: House Speaker Mike Johnson looks on during a press conference on House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry into President Biden at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 29, 2023. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

The House faces a daunting challenge as Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan to address Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) hits a roadblock. The contentious debate over warrantless surveillance powers leaves the House at an impasse.

The Stalled Plan

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Speaker Johnson’s attempt to bring competing bills to reform warrantless surveillance powers to the House floor is thwarted. This setback puts the House back at square one in addressing Section 702 of FISA, prolonging the deadlock that has persisted for months.

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Hopes for a Resolution

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Johnson had hoped that a floor battle between the House’s Judiciary and Intelligence committees would resolve differences between the two panels’ preferred packages. However, the plan faced resistance within the House Rules Committee, leading to its abandonment.

Divisions Within the GOP

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The plan’s collapse is indicative of internal divisions within the GOP. Some Republicans opposed the floor showdown, reflecting a familiar pattern that toppled Johnson’s predecessor. This internal strife complicates efforts to find a unified approach to surveillance reform.

A Critical Extension

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The defense policy bill included an extension of FISA 702 powers, granting Congress until mid-April to devise a long-term reauthorization plan. However, the two panels remain at odds over critical provisions, notably the inclusion of a warrant requirement before reviewing information collected on Americans.

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Balancing Privacy and National Security

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FISA 702 allows the government to spy on foreigners abroad, inadvertently collecting information on Americans communicating with these targets. This practice has raised concerns among privacy activists and led to documented cases of improper FBI searches.

House Judiciary vs. Intelligence Bill

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Diverging approaches emerge within the House. The House Judiciary bill emphasizes the need for a warrant before reviewing information obtained on Americans, prioritizing individual privacy. Conversely, the Intelligence Bill focuses on FBI reforms, arguing against a warrant requirement to preserve law enforcement’s access to real-time information.

A Hazy Path Forward

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With Johnson’s plan abandoned, the path forward remains to be determined. The working group of the two committees needed to reconcile their differences. House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan insists on the importance of a warrant requirement and emphasizes that the entire House should vote on this fundamental issue.

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More Time for Deliberation

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Johnson believes that the House needs more time to review this complex topic. He acknowledges the seriousness of the matter, emphasizing that it pertains to national security and Americans’ safety. The extension provided by the defense bill allows for thorough deliberation.

Ownership of the Issue

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However, Johnson’s reference to “two committees of jurisdiction” may raise concerns among House Judiciary members, who assert their ownership of the topic. The battle for influence over the surveillance debate continues.

Heated Debates and Divisions

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Efforts to mobilize members have led to heated debates within the GOP. Lawmakers expressed frustration, accusing the Intelligence Committee of misrepresenting the Judiciary bill. Amidst these internal disputes, Democrats sought input from national security leaders during a briefing on the bills.

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Divisions Among Democrats

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Democrats are divided on the issue, with many advocating for a warrant requirement. However, some Democrats question whether the Judiciary bill is the best approach, considering concerns raised by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and other national security figures.

Prospects for 2024

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Despite the challenges this year, some GOP members are optimistic that resolutions will emerge in 2024. They hope for bipartisan efforts in January and February to bridge the divides. However, pessimistic voices suggest that internal strife and extreme factions within the GOP may continue to obstruct progress on crucial national security legislation.

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