Grumbling over Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) plans for a floor showdown on competing House Intelligence and Judiciary Committee bills has punted the debate over how to reform the nation’s warrantless surveillance powers.
The House Rules Committee pulled consideration of the two bills after a GOP conference meeting that was staged as a debate over reforming Section 702 of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA), which allows the government to spy on foreigners overseas.
But the differences between the two pieces of legislation took a backseat to Johnson’s plan for resolving a months-long standoff over how to reconcile differences between the two bills, thwarting his plan for a “Queen of the Hill” battle that would bring both to the floor for a vote.
While the unusual process would allow consideration of both bills, it would not allow for amendments, alarming members who want to hash out differences between the two approaches.
“I don’t think that’s the way to do business. What we’re going to do is we’re gonna take two bills that we have strong disagreements on and say, ‘Sorry, take it or leave it. A or B?’” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), another Rules member, also dismissed the process, saying “It’s not a beauty pageant.”
“It’s not the best way, you don’t flip a coin,” he added.
A FISA 702 extension has been included in the defense policy bill, which if approved would buy the House until mid-April to find a solution.
But the failure to follow through with Johnson’s preferred approach is yet another example of the deep divisions in the GOP — ones that are not easily managed.
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), both a Rules and Judiciary member, said he believes Johnson needs to back one of the two proposals, adding that the Queen of the Hill idea “epitomizes Congress’s stupidity.”
“Certainly he should,” he said of the need to pick, advocating for the Judiciary bill he helped work on and contending they are the committee of jurisdiction.
“Mike Johnson is a great guy. He’s under all the pressure that Washington brings to bear. And he’ll figure out a path given sufficient time.”
Johnson elected to go with the uncommon procedure after the two panels split over how to reform FISA 702, which sweeps up information of Americans who communicate with foreign targets.
It’s a database of information the intelligence community argues they need real-time access to in order to thwart terrorism, but one that has also been abused by the FBI.
The House Judiciary bill would require a warrant to access information on Americans captured under 702 — something critics see as blinding law enforcement to critical information.
The House Intelligence bill would limit the number of FBI personnel who can conduct searches and includes other reform measures, but critics see its broad language as expanding the authority of 702. That includes allowing its use to screen anyone coming to the U.S. — something critics fear would improperly use a terrorism authority within immigration.
Despite other significant overlap between the bills, those two positions are not easily resolved.
“I feel like we could do a better job of getting those two bills together and coming up with one bill … Very few people on either side of the aisle deal a lot with FISA and understand the intricacies, and so to ask for a Queen of the Hill vote is, I think it really misses the point,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), one of the few Judiciary members opposed to his panel’s approach.
“Because you’ve got two sets of experts and they disagree. And now it’s just gonna be a popularity contest. It’s not really going to be on the merits of the bills.”
With several Rules Committee members also serving on Judiciary, many said that was their preferred package to move forward.
“Judiciary has primary jurisdiction. We should put that bill on the floor … I would put Judiciary on the floor with all the amendments the Intel Committee wants with up or down votes,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who serves on Judiciary and Rules.
“Or alternatively, the Speaker should sit down with the two chairmen and a parliamentarian and say, ‘Okay, you have jurisdiction here. You have jurisdiction here. And you guys write each of your respective jurisdictions’ provisions.”
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This story originally Appeared on The Hill