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Speaker Johnson takes heat from House conservatives over short-term extension of warrantless surveillance powers

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Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is taking heat from the hard-right conservative wing of his conference over the addition of a short-term extension of the nation’s warrantless surveillance powers in the Defense authorization bill. 

Johnson huddled with a slew of animated GOP lawmakers — many of whom had long given his ousted predecessor headaches — on the House floor Thursday about Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The lawmakers have lobbied against any short-term extension of Section 702, arguing its impact on civil liberties should only be considered through stand-alone legislation. 

Johnson has appeared to waffle on the matter, as he initially indicated that Section 702 would not be included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). That flipped Wednesday afternoon, when a four-month extension was included in the NDAA, annoying those who want to see serious reforms to the surveillance act.

“We shouldn’t be doing an NDAA that’s watered down with a four month extension. That’s absurd,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said of the surveillance act.

Shortly after speaking with the group, Johnson sent a dear colleague letter to the conference, pledging to take up competing bills from the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees next week.

The vote comes through a process that allows each to be considered as amendments, while only the top vote getter proceeds as a bill.

It’s a move Johnson said “provides members a fair opportunity to vote in favor of their preferred measure.” 

Section 702’s inclusion in the NDAA “provide[s] the necessary time to facilitate the reform process in a manner that will not conflict with our existing appropriations deadlines and other conflicts.”

Section 702 allows for the warrantless surveillance of foreigners located abroad. But Americans who are in touch with targets also have their communications swept up on the search, a dynamic of alarm to both Republicans and Democrats passionate about privacy rights.

“We were talking about the elements of our reform bill, and the need to get that passed and sent over to the Senate,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who has worked on a House Judiciary Committee 702 proposal that would require a warrant to review information collected on Americans — something vehemently opposed by the intelligence community.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) was not part of the discussion but warned earlier Thursday that he now sees a more difficult path for the NDAA. 

“I think there’s people that are going to vote against NDAA now because of the changes that were made,” he told reporters.

The spy powers are set to expire at the end of the year. The extension in the NDAA to mid-April would largely punt a heated debate over four different reform bills being debated by the House and Senate.

Johnson has faced significant lobbying on the matter by leaders of the House Intelligence Committee. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the panel, was spotted speaking with Johnson on the House floor earlier this week.

“You can air drop the whole reform bill into the NDAA. And you know, he decided not to do that. OK, that’s fair. But what you can’t do is not have a temporary extension. Because the next likely vehicle for reauthorization is the Jan. 19 successor to the [continuing resolution]. So just that alone is a potential 19-day, no-702 period, which is the period in which Americans get killed,” Himes told The Hill on Tuesday.

There are a fair number of lawmakers who say they’re indifferent to the inclusion of a short-term extension, including those who say they are grateful for the extra time to consider bills that offer considerable reforms to the program.

But some would rather take up a reform bill next week — the last week the House is in session before Section 702 expires Dec. 31.

“I remain disappointed” about its inclusion, said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who was in the House chamber as Reps. Ben Cline (R-Va.), Andrew Cylde (R-Ga.), Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and Eric Burlison (R-Mo.) huddled with Johnson.

Rep. Josh Brecheen (R-Okla.), who was also in the conversation, said little about the discussion but expressed gratitude to Johnson, nodding to the difficulty of his role.

“I am grateful for a Speaker who’s asking for wise counsel on the decisions he’s making,” Brecheen said.

“I think that Speaker Johnson is asking the right questions. He’s got a listening ear, and he’s got a heart to do the conservative thing.”

Emily Brooks and Mychael Schnell contributed.

Updated 1:06 p.m. ET

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