House Votes to Curb NSA Domestic Phone Spying

House Votes to Curb NSA Domestic Phone Spying
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In overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion, the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone metadata, putting pressure on the Senate as the upper chamber prepares to take action on the issue next week.

The House voted 338-88 to pass the USA Freedom Act, which would prevent the NSA from collecting telephone data from millions of Americans, a controversial practice disclosed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden. About an equal number of Democrats and Republicans opposed the legislation. The vote comes on the heels of a federal appeals court decision last week that said the data collection went beyond what lawmakers authorized in Section 215 of the 2001 Patriot Act.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the primary author of the legislation, released a joint statement with Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, ranking member John Conyers and Rep. Jerrold Nadler after the vote saying the USA Freedom Act would end bulk data gathering and enhance civil liberties while continuing to provide national security.

“The American people have told Congress loud and clear that we need to rein in our nation’s surveillance programs and today the House of Representatives listened to them by passing the USA Freedom Act,” the congressmen's statement said. “This strong, bipartisan bill contains the most sweeping set of reforms to government surveillance practices in nearly 40 years.”

They added that in light of the appeals court case, the Senate “should waste no time defending a program that has been ruled unlawful and take up the USA Freedom Act as soon as possible.”

Despite the large bipartisan margin on the bill in the House, the path forward in the Senate is much less certain. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced legislation, with the support of Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, to reauthorize the section of the Patriot Act used to justify the bulk data collection without any major changes.

With leadership rallied around McConnell’s priority and a number of civil liberty-minded senators on both sides of the aisle staunchly against reauthorization -- from Republicans Rand Paul and Mike Lee to Democrats Ron Wyden and Richard Blumenthal -- the debate in the Senate will be much more contentious.

Blumenthal told reporters Wednesday that McConnell is “in a box” when it comes to pushing through the reauthorization. 

“I think he should sit down with supporters of … our measure and reach a compromise that preserves constitutional rights and protects security,” Blumenthal said.

On Tuesday, FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers briefed senators about the program. At a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor Wednesday morning, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said the briefing was an “ah-ha moment” for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. He said he was surprised by how little data is being collected, calling it “malpractice” and saying that American citizens shouldn’t be concerned about privacy, but about the effectiveness of the program.

“I think you’re going to see people on both sides of the aisle now pushing in a different direction, wondering why not more data is part of the database, if you will, that is used to protect our citizens,” Corker said. “As a matter of fact, the way it’s being implemented today, I don’t see how it’s much useful at all to the American people and am shocked, shocked again by the small amount of data that is even a part of the program. It needs to be ramped up and I think you’ll see, potentially, people on both sides of the aisle pushing for that.”

Most senators were hesitant to discuss the briefing, which was classified in nature. One Senate Republican aide suggested that Corker “probably said more about the contents of what was a classified briefing than he should have.”

And while Corker suggested that that briefing was a “game changer,” senators who are for ending the bulk data collection disagreed with that assessment.

“The debate over the NSA’s surveillance program is about how the information is collected, not how much,” Utah Republican Mike Lee said in a statement to RealClearPolitics. “The means proposed in the USA Freedom Act are more than enough to protect our national security and are also consistent with the Fourth Amendment."

Blumenthal, who did not attend the briefing because of a scheduling conflict, said the program has been “stunningly unproductive.”

“I’ve been briefed extensively in the past on this program and the surprise for me is that senators would still believe that it was absolutely necessary to our national defense,” Blumenthal said.

All these disagreements will likely be hashed out next week. Burr, the intelligence committee chairman, said they will take up McConnell’s clean reauthorization, not the House-passed legislation, next week. He declined to predict whether there were enough votes to pass it, and indicated it was possible there could be a short-term extension to give more time to debate the measures. Blumenthal said he would be inclined to oppose a short-term reauthorization, unless it was just a matter of weeks and solely for the purpose of finding compromise.

Others might not be open to a short-term fix under any circumstances. A spokesperson for Paul confirmed he would vote against any measure that reauthorized the program, no matter for how long, and both Paul and Wyden have said they would likely filibuster attempts for a temporary solution. 

All this disagreement leaves open the possibility that the program will expire on June 1 without any Senate action. Burr suggested that expiration and passage of the USA Freedom Act, the bill the House passed Wednesday, were one in the same to him because both would result in the end of the bulk data collection. He didn’t think that was likely, however, and said he expected the Senate to take care of the issue next week.

“I think most members are planning on going home next Friday for a week,” Burr said. “The Senate hasn’t had a break in a long time, so I bet we’re going to be finished by then.”

 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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