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After Trump broadside, surveillance bill collapses in the House

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaks during a news conference following a closed-door caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on March 20 in Washington, D.C.  (Chip Somodevilla)
By Luke Broadwater and Charlie Savage New York Times

WASHINGTON – Right-wing House Republicans on Wednesday blocked legislation to extend an expiring warrantless surveillance law that national security officials call crucial to gathering intelligence and fighting terrorism, dealing Speaker Mike Johnson a stinging defeat after former President Donald Trump urged lawmakers to kill the bill.

In an upset on the House floor, the measure, which would extend a section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act known as Section 702, failed what is normally a routine procedural test. On a vote of 228-193, 19 House Republicans, most aligned with the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, joined Democrats in opposing its consideration.

Such defections were once considered unthinkable but have become increasingly common as the hard right has rebelled against party leaders.

It was unclear how Republicans would attempt to move forward.

“We will regroup and reformulate another plan,” Johnson said after the vote. “We cannot allow Section 702 of FISA to expire. It’s too important to national security. I think most of the members understand that.”

The setback came just hours after Trump added his powerful voice of opposition to a sizable contingent of right-wing lawmakers who have clamored for a more sweeping FISA overhaul that would severely limit the government’s spying powers. And it unfolded as intelligence officials were visiting Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers and urge them to pass the legislation, which they say is essential to keep the country safe from a terrorist attack.

It was the third time attempts to advance the bill have collapsed in the House. In December, Johnson scrapped plans to hold votes on rival bills to narrow the scope the law after an ugly fight broke out among Republicans. He pulled the bill again in February.

Complicating matters, Republicans had bundled a procedural measure to open debate on the bill with an unrelated resolution condemning President Joe Biden’s border policies, all but ensuring that no Democrats would vote to advance the package. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of the leaders of the party’s hard-right wing, had pledged Tuesday to tank it.

Then Trump weighed in overnight.


The statement was largely incoherent as a matter of policy. Section 702 allows the government to target foreigners abroad for surveillance without warrants. The instance Trump was apparently referring to – when the FBI obtained wiretap orders on a former campaign adviser to his 2016 campaign as part of the Russia investigation – concerned a different section of FISA for targeting Americans and people on domestic soil in national security inquiries.

But as a matter of politics, Trump’s attack on the measure underscored his lingering grievances about the Russia investigation and his disdain for national security agencies he often disparages as an evil “deep state.” And it resonated with his hard-right allies on Capitol Hill, who see blocking the extension of the law as a way to inflict pain on an intelligence community they regard as an enemy.

Section 702 is set to expire April 19. But the program can continue operating until April 2025 because the FISA court last week granted a government request authorizing it for another year. Under the law, the surveillance activity can continue so long as there are active court orders allowing it, even if the underlying statute expires.

The continued dysfunction in the House raised questions about whether the program would be renewed with no changes, an outcome that lawmakers in both parties have toiled to avoid, or extended at all. House Republicans have now effectively rejected three attempts to extend and amend the program, leaving them little leverage to insist on modifications.

“It’s never helpful for the majority party to take down its own rules,” Johnson said Wednesday afternoon. “What it does ultimately, of course, is it weakens our hand in negotiations with the Senate and the White House.”

On Wednesday, national security officials and others sounded alarms over the prospect that the law could be allowed to expire.

“It’s our principal tool in protecting the homeland from terrorist threats committed here in the United States,” said William Barr, who served as attorney general under Trump, calling a failure to extend the law “reckless” and a danger to Americans. “We’re blinding ourselves at a critical juncture, and we’re also hurting our allies who rely on intelligence we collect this way.”

Trump’s intervention recalled a similar episode in early 2018. He set off last-minute turmoil then with a social media broadside against FISA just as House Republicans were scrambling to secure enough support to extend Section 702 before it expired, a move backed by his administration. Hours later, after lobbying by then-Speaker Paul Ryan, Trump walked back the statement in another social media post, and the bill passed.

Johnson, who previously opposed the pending legislation and backed a more sweeping overhaul, now says the bill contains “the most significant set of intelligence reforms since FISA was originally enacted in 1978.”

But Gaetz and others refused to allow it to move ahead.

“I don’t think we should proceed on to this bill until we’ve got a better understanding of how to adhere to the Constitution,” Gaetz said before the failed vote.

Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., echoed the sentiment in a social media post Wednesday morning, writing, “We are killing FISA.”

At issue is a debate that has roiled Congress for months. Under Section 702, the government is empowered to collect, without warrants, the messages of noncitizens abroad, even when those targeted are communicating with Americans.

As a result, the government sometimes collects Americans’ private messages without a warrant. While there are limits on how those messages can be searched for and used, the FBI has repeatedly violated those limits in recent years – including improperly querying for information about Black Lives Matter protesters and people suspected of participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

The FBI has since tightened its system to reduce the risk of queries that violate the standards, and the bill in question would codify those changes and add reporting requirements, as well as limiting the number of officials with access to the raw repository of information collected.

But reformers – including both progressive Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans – want to add a requirement that officials must get a warrant before querying the repository for the contents of Americans’ communications. Under the rules voted down Wednesday, critics led by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chair of the Judiciary Committee, would have gotten a chance to try to add that requirement to the bill.

National security officials argue doing so would cripple the program. Senior lawmakers on the House national security committees, including Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio., chair of the Intelligence Committee, and Jim Himes of Connecticut, its top Democrat, have also resisted such changes and had backed the more modest adjustments in the bill.

A handful of Republicans, including Gaetz, favor allowing Section 702 to expire altogether.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.