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19 Republicans block FISA legislation

Frustrations are boiling over in the GOP conference after 19 Republicans blocked legislation to reauthorize the government’s surveillance powers, a number that stunned Washington on Wednesday and sent GOP leaders scrambling for a Plan B to shore up national security protections before they expire next week.

The tanked procedural vote sent House Republicans to a hasty conference meeting behind closed doors in the Capitol basement, their second of the day, for a huddle that lawmakers described as an “airing of grievances” — one that seemed only to heighten the internal tensions. 

“That was pure chaos,” Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio) told reporters of the meeting. “It wasn’t productive at all.”

“It was a conference that could have been an email, minus the yelling,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said. “I think it’s cathartic to some degree or another, but … we got to figure out something. I don’t know what this looks like.”

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) listened to his colleagues and took notes throughout the huddle, according to lawmakers in the room, and at times he responded to qualms members aired.

But the Speaker did not lay out a path forward on the contentious question of how to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), leaving Republicans wondering how the House will reform the country’s ability to spy on foreigners abroad by next week’s deadline.

“It was a fruitful meeting,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said of the last-minute conference meeting.

But when pressed to detail what was fruitful about it, he paused and then laughed before floating negotiations with the upper chamber.

“Well, I think that the Speaker has a number of options that he has to consider, including working with the Senate directly,” Turner said.

Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), who voted to spike the rule, said the conversation was “definitely a little contentious” at some points.

“You can just just tell that people are passionate about this issue, and I think for good reason,” he added. 

Rule votes have historically been predictable affairs, with the majority party voting in favor and the minority party against, regardless of how lawmakers plan to vote on the underlying legislation. That’s changed in this Congress, with conservatives repeatedly using the procedural votes to protest legislation leadership has brought to the floor — but even so 19 “no” votes shocked many in the Capitol.

Those Republicans were largely opposed the procedural vote out of frustration with Johnson for backing the legislation without a warrant requirement they’ve demanded.

While Section 702 does not permit the government to spy on Americans, citizens who communicate with foreigners who are being surveilled have their interactions swept up in the process — information that can later be viewed by law enforcement.

But their revolt was counterintuitive — it blocked an amendment from coming to the floor that would have added a warrant requirement for Americans’ data that was predicted to have broad support.

The debate over FISA has for months pitted members on the House Judiciary Committee against those of the House Intelligence Committee, with the warrant requirement emerging as the main source of disagreement.

“I’m just bewildered that a small number of members decided to take down the rule,” said House Intelligence Committee ranking member Jim Himes (Conn.), the senior Democrat on the committee.

“We would have won or we would have lost but it was all teed up with a base bill that had various tangible reforms, and 19 people decided no, we shouldn’t have that debate.”

Some Republicans who support the warrant amendment were frustrated by their colleagues’ actions.

“I want a chance to win the warrant amendment debate. I think momentum was moving in our way,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chair of the Judiciary Committee. “You have the debate, and both sides argue and you have the vote. And whoever wins is happy and whoever loses, not quite so much. And you move on.”

Johnson said afterward that he’s still hopeful he can win over the detractors and move the FISA reauthorization through the House by regular order, which will require a rule like the one the conservatives sank Wednesday.

“We’re going to find consensus and talk to a few of the members who were most vocal tonight, through the evening [and] tomorrow morning if necessary. And we’re going to try to find a way to unlock the rule,” Johnson told reporters. “And I think it’s possible. I mean, there are some differences of opinion. But I think everyone — most everyone — understands the necessity of getting this right and getting it done.”

Yet other Republicans warned that the internal opposition is too entrenched to move the bill via regular order, predicting GOP leaders would have to tap a fast-track procedure, known as the suspension calendar, that precludes a rule but requires two-thirds of the chamber to pass.

“The Rules Committee’s so broken right now, I think the only option [is to] put it on suspension,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “And I think it would get two-thirds.”

Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, also took a shot at those Republicans who blocked the FISA bill, saying they’re simply “confused” about what the bill actually allows the government to do. 

“The ideologically pure crowd doesn’t take well to facts,” he said. 

Going the suspension-calendar route would necessarily require votes from Democrats, who are also internally split over whether the law should include a warrant requirement.

“How do you sideline 19 people? You do that the way it’s been done these last couple weeks, which is suspension of the rules, but — 290 is tough,” Himes said.

And while some Democrats also may not support the overall bill, Himes said, “then there’s a larger question that has been a question since Kevin McCarthy, which is at what point do the Democrats stop majority dysfunction?” calling it a political question.

Still, Democratic leaders support the concept and have suggested most of their caucus will follow.

“We understand the importance of reauthorizing FISA and protecting our national security. We want that,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said.

The House bill contains a number of reforms other than a warrant requirement and some Republicans — including Johnson — have raised concerns that not passing a FISA bill in the lower chamber could prompt the Senate to get moving on a “clean” FISA reauthorization measure, then force the lower chamber to take up that legislation.

“My worst-case scenario, being rolled by the Senate on a clean [reauthorization], that’s my worst-case scenario, and I also think it’s probably the most realistic,” Armstrong said. 

The fight has left Johnson and his leadership team with few options to break the internal logjam ahead of the April 19 deadline for reauthorizing FISA.

“No decisions have been made,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said after the meeting.  

It’s an uncertainty that’s only fueling the anxieties within the divisive conference as the FISA deadline inches closer. 

“I have no idea what they’re gonna do,” Miller said. “I feel bad for the Speaker because he’s literally gonna have to pull a rabbit out of a magic hat for this thing to work, at this point.”

The series of events on Wednesday is prompting new criticism of Johnson, who has struggled to lead the lower chamber through the months-long debate over FISA — which has included one short-term extension and a hasty yank from the House floor.

And it comes as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a top Johnson antagonist, continues to dangle her motion to vacate over the Speaker’s head. Greene filed that resolution — the same mechanism used to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — roughly two weeks ago, but has not yet said when she plans to force a vote on it.

Greene met with Johnson Wednesday morning and told reporters afterward that the Speaker “does not have my support,” adding “I’m watching what happens with FISA and Ukraine.”

She heaped new criticism on the Speaker following Wednesday afternoon’s conference meeting.

“Leadership knew, Speaker Johnson knew ahead of time that they were gonna vote against the rule,” Greene said of the band of conservatives. “So why would you bring it to the floor if they’re gonna vote against the rule and it’s gonna fail? That doesn’t make sense.”

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who opposed the rule, criticized Johnson for coming out against the warrant requirement ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

“What we ended up with was a bill that didn’t have the warrant protections in the bill. It was going to be forced to be added as an amendment. And then the Speaker of the House put his finger on the scale against the amendment. And that pretty much is the story,” he told reporters after the vote.

The episode shows little has changed since the House first weighed the issue last year. 

In December, the House was forced to pass a short-term extension of the law amid a feud between the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees over whose bill should be the vehicle for extending the law.

Then in February, Johnson scrapped plans to bring a FISA bill to the floor amid divisions between the two committees.

“Nothing’s ever comes easy for the 118th [Congress],” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said Wednesday, “and I think it’s a good reminder that we have a lot of people who frankly aren’t as interested in progress as they make it seem.”

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