A recent power play by House leadership on legislation to reform National Security Agency surveillance has cast reform advocates in a tailspin as they hunt for opportunities to advance their cause.
House Republican leadership aides say they are still hammering out plans for the highly anticipated debate over the reach of the NSA's power to gather information from the phone and Internet records of millions of ordinary Americans.
Last week, leadership abruptly pulled the plug on a markup in the Senate Intelligence Committee, so that legislation that would protect the NSA's controversial surveillance could go straight to the floor. That move is raising consternation among reform champions who want to put limits on government surveillance.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. — a senior Judiciary Committee member who was a leading author of the USA Patriot Act, which paved the way for the NSA's surveillance practices — is vowing to challenge House leaders.
If leadership brings the Intelligence Committee bill, led by Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., and Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., to the floor, Sensenbrenner told National Journal Daily he would go to the Rules Committee and demand a vote on his bill too.
"If Rogers's bill goes to the floor, I will ask the Rules Committee to make my bill in order," Sensenbrenner said.
Sensenbrenner's bill would end the NSA's bulk data-collection methods, and it has been referred to the Judiciary, Intelligence, and Financial Services committees.
The Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has primary jurisdiction over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes the NSA activities, and it has expected to have its say in this debate.
"It's our very strong preference to have Judiciary have its imprint on whatever product comes about," said a committee aide. "This is our primary jurisdiction so we expect to be leading the effort."
But leadership in both parties has largely taken steps to defend the status quo, arguing that the NSA's surveillance methods are necessary to thwart terrorist threats.
"Both [Speaker John] Boehner and [Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi are in favor of what the Intelligence Committee is doing," Sensenbrenner said. "The biggest challenge is procedurally to get a vote. If Judiciary is short-circuited on the Rogers' bill and it is brought directly to the floor, then I think I ought to be allowed to bring my bill directly to the floor and let the House decide."
Sensenbrenner's bill has attracted 103 cosponsors.
Sensenbrenner said that as a former Judiciary Committee chairman he is familiar with how to use House procedure to his advantage, but he admitted figuring out how to secure a vote "is to be determined."
"I know the rules and I know how one can use the rules to advance legislation. That is how there were 115 Judiciary bills that actually were signed," he said.
The Intelligence Committee is expecting both a separate intelligence authorization bill, which passed the committee last week, and its NSA bill to come to the floor separately this year.
Leadership is so far noncommittal on the timing and process.
A senior House GOP aide said there had been little discussion as of Tuesday about potential floor action next week on the Intelligence authorization or NSA reform.
"If we are doing those, it would probably be the second week in December," the aide said.
A different leadership aide reiterated comments made last week when the Intelligence vote was yanked.
"There is significant member interest in this issue as well as multiple committees with jurisdiction. Leadership is working to ensure that there is a well-coordinated process with all interested parties going forward," the aide said.