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'I'm not gonna get rolled': Controversial spying law reignites infighting among House Republicans

By Ken Tran

A controversial spying law is set to reignite tensions between House Republicans this week as conservative hard-liners and members of the intelligence community fight over the scope of how the law should be overhauled under a time crunch. 

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Authority Act, also called FISA, is set to expire April 19, meaning time is running short for Congress to reauthorize the law. The sticking point lies in Section 702, which allows U.S. authorities to surveil communications of foreigners without a warrant.

Because those foreigners often contact Americans, their information is also swept up in data collection. As a result, the FBI can conduct searches on American data collected through the law without a warrant. Many conservatives have balked at the function and are now relentlessly pushing House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., to reform FISA with a new warrant requirement for authorities to sift through data.

Section 702 has divided House Republicans into two warring factions. The law’s harshest critics are being led by the House Judiciary Committee, while the House Intelligence Committee is pushing to preserve the law, arguing it is essential to protect the nation. 

FISA's conservative antagonists want an amendment to include a warrant requirement. Opponents of that move say a warrant requirement would effectively neuter the program and threaten national security.

Top House Republican: Some conservative lawmakers 'are just not telling the truth'

The fight has revealed the deep divides between Republicans once again and has borne odd coalitions in the House. Ultraconservative Republicans have teamed up with civil-liberty-minded progressive Democrats to rail against Section 702. Meanwhile, national-security-focused Democrats and Republicans have joined forces to oppose the warrant requirement for U.S. officials.

Underscoring the tensions surrounding the bill, Johnson has already had to pull back two FISA pushes in recent months and decided instead to extend the reapproval deadline to April 19. With less than two weeks to go, lawmakers are running up against the clock.

“This is surveillance of foreigners who are abroad. We are not surveilling foreigners in the United States,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, defending Section 702. “We’re not surveilling Americans in the United States.”

Conservatives who are saying the law wholly permits authorities to search through American data without a warrant, Turner said, “are just not telling the truth.”

The current reauthorization bill teed up for a vote this week includes other changes to the law, but the warrant requirement has proved to be the most controversial aspect of the legislation, with members drawing firm lines.

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a hard-right lawmaker, said the bill was “decidedly manipulated to make sure certain amendments can’t be heard and can’t be voted on” and accused Republican leaders of “actively” working against conservative amendments, including a warrant requirement.

The fierce debate has drawn in outside groups as well. FreedomWorks, a hard-line conservative policy group, has waded in, accusing Johnson of “capitulating to the desires of the US surveillance state” in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

‘I’m not gonna get rolled’

In a letter to House Republicans last week, Johnson touted the reforms “to rein in the FBI, increase accountability at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), impose penalties for wrongdoing, and institute unprecedented transparency across the FISA process.”

The speaker warned that if the House can’t pass its own bill by the April 19 deadline, the Democratic-controlled Senate could use the deadline to its advantage and force the House to pass legislation that would include no changes at all. It's an outcome Johnson described as “an unacceptable option.”

Section 702’s critics dismiss Johnson’s reasoning. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., told reporters Tuesday that he has become frustrated with the GOP leader for pushing legislation up against a deadline and forcing members to take tough votes with a lack of time.

“I’m not gonna get rolled,” Armstrong said.

It's not clear how conservatives will react to the bill when it is brought to the House floor. For example, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said he hasn't decided whether he would vote to allow debate on the House floor over the push. Ultraconservatives have often tanked procedural rule votes to freeze the lower chamber and express their displeasure with leadership.

Mike Turner, Chairman, House Permanent Select Committee, during the House Select Committee on Intelligence holding its 2024 Annual Threat Assessment in Washington.

Johnson plans to brief members and meet with various groups throughout the week to discuss the law and try to assuage concerns. The speaker so far has yet to publicly take a side on a warrant requirement.

And the intraparty clash comes at a fraught time for the speaker, who faces a threat to his job at the hands of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. The conservative lawmaker has taken steps to oust him from the speakership.

If Johnson further angers conservative hard-liners, who are already irate at the speaker for working with Democrats on other must-pass legislation, they could turn toward Greene’s side and endanger his leadership post.

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