By Jeremy Herb - 07/24/13 09:00 AM EDT
The House is poised to vote on restricting the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs in what will be the first test of congressional support for the massive data collection activities that were revealed last month.
The House is expected to vote as early as Wednesday on an amendment from Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) that would prevent the NSA from using the Patriot Act to collect records of people who aren’t under investigation.
The House will also vote on amendments that would limit military aid to Syria and Egypt, as well as a more limited NSA amendment that prevents the agency from targeting U.S. citizens.
The amendment votes are the result of a compromise reached between GOP leaders and the libertarian wing of the party, after Amash and a group of Republicans threatened to vote with Democrats to defeat the bill’s rule, which would have been an embarrassing defeat for House leadership.
House leaders decided to limit the number of amendments to the Defense bill — normally considered under an open amendment process — but agreed to allow the four amendments on Egypt, Syria and the NSA.
Libertarian Republicans are teaming up with liberal Democrats in support of the NSA amendments, pitting them against leaders from both parties who have defended the surveillance work as critical to preventing terrorism.
“All we need to do is debate a simple question: Should we fund the NSA’s potential collection of Americans’ information?” Amash said Monday during the House Committee on Rules debate.
Amash’s amendment drew immediate pushback after it was ruled in order on Monday. Members of both the House and Senate Intelligence committees — as well as the NSA director — mobilized to defeat it.
NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander made himself available Tuesday for a classified, members-only briefing to answer questions about the NSA programs, according to an invitation obtained by The Hill.
After the meeting, the NSA director told reporters it was part of ongoing efforts to keep Congress up to speed on the agency’s domestic operations.
“It's always good to keep [Congress] informed,” Alexander said.
The NSA chief noted Tuesday’s meeting with lawmakers did include discussion on Amash’s amendment but declined to comment on the details of the talks or speculate on whether the proposal would have enough votes to pass.
Intelligence Committee leaders, meanwhile, went directly after Amash’s amendment, calling it reckless and unwise.
“Sec 215 helped thwart numerous terror plots against US & allies,” House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers tweeted Monday, referring to the section of the Patriot Act that allows the surveillance. “Clearly saved American lives. Defunding to make political point is reckless.”
In a concerted effort to defeat the amendment, seven House Republican committee chairmen sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to lawmakers urging a “no” vote.
“While many members have legitimate questions about the NSA metadata program, including whether there are sufficient protections for Americans’ civil liberties, eliminating this program altogether without careful deliberation would not reflect our duty, under Article I of the Constitution, to provide for the common defense,” wrote the chairmen, including Rogers.
Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) took the rare step of weighing in on the House fight.
“We believe this debate in the Congressional Intelligence and Judiciary committees should continue and that any amendments to defund the program on appropriations bills would be unwise,” the senators said.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), a senior member of the Intelligence panel, said criticisms that the NSA does not receive oversight were unwarranted.
“I’m afraid that there may be a fair number of members that don’t really understand the issue,” Thornberry told The Hill. “The NSA has more scrutiny by judges and by members of Congress than just about any other federal program you can name.”
It’s unclear whether Amash and his Democratic allies can round up enough votes to pass their measure or the other NSA amendment from Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.), which Amash says doesn’t go far enough.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) suggested he and other Democratic leaders would oppose Amash’s amendment, though Democrats are not whipping against it.
“I think there will be people who will vote for the Amash amendment, [but] I would hope it would not get a majority,” Hoyer told reporters.
The fact that Amash was allowed to offer his amendment on the floor at all has caused some low-level grumbling among frustrated GOP lawmakers who don’t understand why the Michigan lawmaker is being rewarded with a vote on a controversial measure when he’s been a thorn in Boehner’ s side.
Amash’s NSA amendment isn’t the only controversial measure in line for a vote. House leaders also relented to allow amendments that would restrict aid to Syria and Egypt unless the White House obtains congressional approval.
Hoyer suggested Tuesday that Democrats would back the Syria amendment, which stems out of frustration at the Obama administration for routing its Syria military aid through the Intelligence panels.
Hoyer emphasized Tuesday that he hadn’t yet seen the proposal, but he predicted “it probably won’t cause us [Democrats] great problems because what it says is the administration ought to consult with the Congress before it takes any kind of military action.”
Carlo Muñoz, Mike Lillis and Molly Hooper contributed.