US House Speaker again pulls hotly debated domestic surveillance bill

By Thomson Reuters Feb 14, 2024 | 3:57 PM

By Raphael Satter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson was pulling back on plans to reauthorize one of America’s most hotly debated domestic surveillance programs, his spokesman said on Wednesday as bipartisan opposition mounted against the plan.

Hawkish Republicans had planned to introduce a bill on Thursday that would have reauthorized the surveillance program – known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) – ahead of its April expiry date.

The bill, which would allow law enforcement to keep trawling through intercepts of Americans’ communications without a warrant, has drawn the ire of civil liberties advocates, rights defenders, and privacy-minded lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

With Republicans barely holding a majority in the House of Representatives and opponents loudly promising to torpedo the legislation, its passage already looked uncertain.

Johnson’s spokesman Raj Shah said it was being yanked “to allow Congress more time to reach consensus on how best to reform FISA and Section 702 while maintaining the integrity of our critical national security programs.”

Shah did not say when the bill would be reconsidered and did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Late last year Johnson tried to push dueling pieces of legislation to the House floor in a bid to break the impasse over the surveillance power before scrapping the idea and settling for a four month extension.

Earlier on Wednesday, at a hearing before the House Rules Committee, Republicans and Democrats alike voiced their opposition to any reauthorization of domestic surveillance powers that did not include a requirement for judicial sign off on surveillance.

“If the warrant requirement doesn’t go in the legislation, I ain’t supporting it,” Republican hardliner Jim Jordan told the committee.

New York Democrat Jerry Nadler – Jordan’s Democratic counterpart on the House Judiciary Committee – echoed his disatisfaction.

“The bill before us is completely inadequate,” he said.

The hearing was notable for compliments being paid back and forth across the aisle as lawmakers dug in their heels over the warrant requirement.

“This is a rare occurrence and I hope it’s not too common but I find nothing to disagree with in your testimony,” Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie told Nadler.

New York Republican Nick Langworthy said it was “remarkable” to see both sides fighting to protect Americans’ privacy.

“It’s kind of refreshing,” he said.

(Reporting by Raphael Satter; Editing by David Gregorio)