House Republicans are in chaos again as conservatives derail a key surveillance bill

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WASHINGTON — A band of hard-right agitators, backed by former President Donald Trump, revolted against GOP leaders Wednesday, blocking renewal of a powerful surveillance program that is set to expire next week and throwing the GOP-led House into chaos once again.

Nineteen conservatives broke with Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and his leadership team and voted down a "rule"; the vote was 193-228. It's yet another example of a minority of Republicans using the otherwise procedural vote to prevent the House from debating their own party's legislation.

It was the seventh time this Congress — and the fourth under Johnson — that Republicans have taken down their own rule, according to a review by NBC News.

Given the party's minuscule margin, Wednesday's Republican revolt effectively derailed — for now — carefully crafted compromise legislation to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

After the vote, Johnson scheduled a special closed-door meeting of House Republicans for later Wednesday afternoon, but there was no breakthrough after more than an hour. It's unclear whether Congress will be able to renew 702, which the administration says is a critical national security tool, before it expires on April 19.

"We will regroup and reformulate another plan," Johnson told reporters. "We cannot allow Section 702 of FISA to expire. It's too important to national security."

One option now is that the Senate could send the House a clean, short-term extension of FISA with no reforms. "It's a fact — if FISA goes down we'll likely extend current FISA. Stupid," said moderate Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a member of the Armed Services Committee. "They'll end up with the worst option."

The current FISA tool allows the government to conduct targeted surveillance of foreign nationals without needing to obtain warrants, with a higher bar for targeted American citizens. The new House Republican bill calls for a number of reforms but doesn't go far enough in the eyes of privacy and civil liberties advocates, on both the right and left.

Trump threw a wrench into things early Wednesday, posting on social media platform: "KILL FISA, IT WAS ILLEGALLY USED AGAINST ME AND MANY OTHERS. THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN!!!” — an apparent reference to the FBI's bungled surveillance of former Trump aide Carter Page.

"We are killing FISA. As written, it won’t make it off the floor," Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., wrote on X, responding to Trump.

Two other Trump loyalists, Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., also said before the vote they would cast no votes on the rule.

"We're throwing our Constitution and our Bills of Rights away with this history of abuse. It needs to be on the scrap heap," Burchett said in an interview. "They broke the law before. What’s going to stop them from doing so again? We need to remove that tool."

The contentious issue dominated a closed-door gathering of House Republicans on Wednesday morning. Johnson warned Republican lawmakers they would get jammed with a short-term FISA extension from the Senate, without the reforms in the House GOP bill, if members vote down the rule, four sources said. He described that as the worst-case scenario because it would deny the Republicans the chance to revise the law.

After the meeting, Johnson reiterated to reporters that Section 702 can’t be allowed to lapse, saying the spying powers are essential to protecting Americans.

“We have to strike the balance government always does. You have to ... jealously guard the fundamental liberty of American people,” Johnson said. “You protect the liberty, but at the same time, you got to protect your security. And we can’t allow a critical tool like this to just expire and go out of use.”

Although most Democrats and the White House support extending FISA, House Democrats don't intend to provide votes for the rule because of partisan language tucked into it. In addition to the FISA bill, the rule includes a Republican resolution on Israel that criticizes President Joe Biden for pressuring the country to change its war strategy after the strike on a World Central Kitchen aid convoy.

“We have to reauthorize FISA. Unfortunately, the speaker has chosen to couple this rule vote with a bunch of other things,” said Pete Aguilar, of California, the No. 3 House Democrat. “It has partisan resolutions attached to it. And so I would not anticipate any Democrats’ supporting it.”

While some Republicans oppose reauthorizing FISA outright, others are expected to support the rule to vote for a warrant requirement for the Section 702 program. Members of the House Intelligence Committee and the intelligence community warn that such a requirement could cripple the program.

Backers of the House FISA bill have argued that without renewing Section 702, another major terrorist attack could occur on American soil. Families of 9/11 victims sent a letter to the speaker urging Congress to reauthorize Section 702, according to a copy obtained by NBC News. The letter, from 9/11 Families United, was circulated to House Republicans in their weekly conference meeting Wednesday morning.

“It is our belief that the failure to renew Section 702 would be detrimental to American national security and would put Americans at risk of new terrorist attacks,” the letter said.

The push to curtail the government’s surveillance power has sparked an extraordinary left-right coalition.

The Rules Committee authorized a House floor vote on an amendment to curtail warrantless surveillance of U.S. persons under the FISA law, written by Reps. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.; Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.; Warren Davidson, R-Ohio; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

Jordan, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, appeared on conservative host Mark Levin’s show and pressed his case for changing the current FISA law.

“Got to have a warrant requirement,” Jordan said. “I’m all for surveilling foreigners who want to do us harm. But when you do that you inevitably pick up a number of Americans, many times innocently. And if you’re going to go search that database, you got to go through a separate equal branch of government and get a probable cause warrant. That is how it works.”

The White House "strongly supports" the House's FISA bill, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said. But the administration opposes the Jordan amendment, which, Sullivan said, would "rebuild a wall around and thus block access to already lawfully collected information in the possession of the U.S. government."

Christy Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said: “I can’t imagine working in today’s counterterrorism environment without FISA Section 702, and I don’t know how we would replace it if it were gone. Our No. 1 mission is to protect the United States homeland from a diverse array of threats, and speed is of the essence to fulfill this mission.”

CORRECTION (April 8, 2024, 9:55 a.m.) A previous version of this article misstated Rep. Don Bacon’s state. He represents Nebraska, not Iowa.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com