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House hesitates over votes on spy authority renewal bills

Lawmakers air concerns over how to consider proposals on Section 702 of FISA

House Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., is seen outside a meeting earlier this month.
House Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., is seen outside a meeting earlier this month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A plan to vote on two competing House bills that would reauthorize a powerful surveillance authority ran into trouble Monday evening, with Republicans at odds over proposals that take different paths on privacy protections.

The House discussed the bills to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act at a Rules Committee meeting Monday, and Republicans had been aiming for floor votes as early as Tuesday.

But the panel adjourned Monday without acting on the two bills on Section 702, which is set to expire at the end of the year. Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., after a committee recess, announced that they “no longer anticipate further consideration” of the proposals.

Last week, the Judiciary Committee advanced one bill and the House Intelligence Committee advanced a different bill. Both panels agree the powerful surveillance tool should be reauthorized, but the two measures take starkly different approaches on privacy protections for information of Americans swept up in the spy program.

Last week, House Speaker Mike Johnson in a letter said he plans to bring both measures to the floor under a special rule that allows members a “fair opportunity” to vote for their preferred measure.

The approach would gauge support in the House on a surveillance topic that does not cut along sharp partisan lines. But some Republicans on Monday evening threw cold water on holding floor votes on the bills, while other lawmakers voiced concerns about which panel had jurisdiction over the Section 702 program.

And there’s a ready off-ramp to avoid an immediate floor showdown. A “clean” extension of Section 702 through April 19 is part of the final version of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, which both chambers look to take up this week.

Republicans exiting a meeting Monday evening spoke against quickly holding floor votes on the two longer-term reauthorization bills.

“We heard two different sides, Intel versus Judiciary,” Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said. “It needs to be one bill, and so, extend it four months. Let’s get together on one bill. Let everybody be educated on it. Nine tenths of the people in there other than Intel and Judiciary don’t know the specifics.”

“The two sides need to come together. We’re fighting for America, to protect America,” Norman said.

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said he told the conference that Section 702 is the most important national security debate they have had since he’s been in Congress. “And if we need to slow down and do this right, then let’s do that,” Garcia said.

And if there’s going to be a short-term extension of Section 702, “Let’s go have this conversation several more times and get alignment. Hopefully, we can get down to one product,” he said.

The surveillance authority allows the U.S. government to collect digital communications of foreigners located outside the country.

But the program also sweeps up the communications of Americans and allows the FBI to search through data without a warrant using information such as an email address.

Committee jurisdiction

At the Rules Committee hearing, several members of the Judiciary Committee voiced objections that indicated there is also a turf war between the panels.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a member of the Judiciary and the Rules committees, said there shouldn’t be a rule that puts both bills on the floor because the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the Section 702 program.

Such a rule would allow “just taking authority for an entire bill from one committee and giving it to another committee by a vote of the House.”

Massie instead pitched the idea of bringing the Judiciary Committee bill to the floor with a rule that would allow the Intelligence Committee to propose changes so that those members “can have your moment on the floor.”

“We shouldn’t go willy-nilly about creating new precedents and bending our own rules just because a committee that has lesser jurisdiction, in fact, not the jurisdiction over the programs being reformed, wants to bigfoot the other committee,” Massie said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, also advocated at the Rules meeting for having a floor vote on the Judiciary bill and not the Intelligence bill.

Doing both “would set up this contest” which is “not the right way to go,” Nadler said.

And Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said warrant requirements or transparency with the courts is “clearly” under the jurisdiction of his panel.

“Quite frankly, I view that in some ways, while we’ve tried to play nice with Intel, I view them as encroachers and interlopers,” Biggs said.

At a committee meeting last week, Intelligence Chairman Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, said the Judiciary measure would provide “immunity from prosecution for some horrific crimes, if they’re discovered in 702 foreign intelligence collection.”

“Under their bill, 702 information would not be admissible in criminal prosecutions for horrific crimes such as child pornography, human trafficking, murder and even money laundering,” Turner said. “These are provisions of their bill that they’re going to have to explain.”

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