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House GOP’s latest stumble: An internal war over government surveillance

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House Republicans are reeling after punting yet another high-priority bill until next year, wracked by bicameral and intraparty divisions over how to rein in controversial government surveillance powers.

Speaker Mike Johnson has officially delayed votes on competing proposals to reauthorize and overhaul a foreign intelligence surveillance authority known as Section 702, as POLITICO first reported on Monday night.

The Louisiana Republican now has to hope that more time will help the party find a path forward after the GOP chairs of the Intelligence and Judiciary panels openly clashed over their disparate visions for changing the surveillance program.

Section 702 allows the government to monitor foreign targets as part of its intelligence data collecting but has become a political flashpoint because of its potential to sweep up communications of U.S. citizens. House Republicans have added an extension of the existing program until mid-April to their sweeping defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, which is set for a floor vote this week.

“I don’t think we can make a mistake. I think we’ve got to do it right. And so we’re going to allow the time to do that,” Johnson told reporters of the impasse over surveillance powers.

“Democracy is messy sometimes, but we have to get it right … sometimes it takes more time than we would like,” he added.

He had been expected to tee up dueling bills for Tuesday, but that plan unraveled after his right flank threatened to bottle up any debate on them. The tension boiled over on Monday night, when Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) sparred over their proposals.

Turner charged that the Judiciary bill was laden with provisions from Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) — who helped Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) craft it —and that it would make it harder to investigate human trafficking and related activities.

Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), an ally of Jordan, pushed back hard on that argument.

“The purpose of [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] is to spy on foreigners. So you can spy on foreigners without limitations, the limitation is for American citizens if you get a warrant. They basically want to be like a police state where you keep not getting a warrant,” Davidson told reporters as he left the Monday night meeting.

During Tuesday’s closed-door conference meeting, Johnson said he would create a group of members to help iron out differences between the two bills — with the chairs of both warring committees expected to participate — according to one lawmaker in attendance, granted anonymity to talk about the private discussions.

This lawmaker added that Johnson’s idea was not universally well-received.

Johnson also told fellow Republicans that delaying the surveillance debate until April gives them space to tackle other upcoming deadlines, like government funding that expires in January and February.

Jordan, Turner and three Republicans on both of their panels negotiated behind the scenes for months to try to reach agreement. But their bills ultimately diverged significantly, including over when a warrant should be required for searching data that the program collects for information on Americans.

And Johnson did not insert himself into the raging debate, which fueled frustrations among colleagues who suspected he was trying to avoid political blowback rather than making a firm decision. Republicans are already urging him to take a more assertive approach if the two committees aren’t able to work out a deal next year

Some GOP lawmakers who support the Intelligence panel’s bill even discussed various ways to make trouble for leadership in response to the stalled surveillance debate, including blocking the Judiciary bill from the floor or even opposing this week’s impeachment inquiry resolution, according to two Republicans familiar with the discussions who were also granted anonymity.

But Republican critics of Johnson’s handling of the matter have since abandoned that talk.

Katherine Tully McManus contributed reporting.