By Julian Hattem and Cristina Marcos - 05/22/14 11:08 AM EDT
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The House on Thursday passed the most sweeping changes to the country’s intelligence operations in more than a decade, voting to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to snoop on communications.
The USA Freedom Act, which passed 303-121, had run into opposition from some of the NSA's biggest critics, who warned that the legislation had been gutted in recent weeks. Fifty-one Republicans and 70 Democrats voted against the bill.
The bill, written by Patriot Act author Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), codifies many of the surveillance reforms supported by President Obama and effectively ends the government’s bulk collection of phone records.
Sensenbrenner, who served as House Judiciary Committee chairman at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said the legislation was a step toward ending the NSA's bulk data collection.
"The days of the NSA indiscriminately vacuuming more data than it can store will end with the USA Freedom Act," Sensenbrenner said.
The government’s collection of phone records was one of the most controversial programs leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden a year ago.
Privacy advocates and tech firms like Facebook and Google, though, had pulled their support from the USA Freedom Act this week, fearing that compromise measures had rendered it ineffective.
Now the bill heads to the Senate, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has pledged to take it up this summer.
Leahy, who authored the Senate version of the bill, and other lawmakers backing reform, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), have voiced concerns about key measures that were scaled back in the House.
Those concerns could set the stage for another round of congressional horse-trading in order to win over senators like Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has favored narrower reforms.
Under the bill, NSA agents would need a court order to be able to search through private companies’ collected data about people’s calls, such as which numbers they called, how often and how long they spoke. The bill also amends the FBI’s use of national security letters and other methods of collecting information.
Defenders of the programs and the intelligence agencies said that the surveillance operations were crucial to protecting the country against terrorists, and warned that sweeping changes could force the country to lower its guard.
The compromise House bill hit the floor after a weeks-long standoff between leaders of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees. Heads of the Intel panel had initially written their own surveillance reform bill, which many critics rejected as essentially toothless.
Lawmakers agreed to move ahead with the bill after some measures on transparency, “backdoor” searches of Americans and civil liberties advocacy on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court were scaled back. Additional changes were made in the days before the measure hit the floor.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Sensenbrenner said he agreed with people who had concerns about the new version, but implored them not to back away.
"The privacy groups who are upset about lost provisions, I share your disappointment," Sensenbrenner said. "This bill still does deserve support. Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good."
To some reformers, that plea was not enough. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said the changes left too many loopholes for the NSA to continue spying on Americans.
"Regrettably, we have learned that if we leave any ambiguity in the law, the intelligence agencies run a truck right through that ambiguity," said Lofgren.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), another outspoken civil liberties advocate and original co-sponsor, voted "no."
“This morning's bill maintains and codifies a large-scale, unconstitutional domestic spying program,” he wrote in a post on Facebook.
Changes to the language, for instance, would allow the government to obtain data about a broad section of phone records such as "area code 616" or "phone calls made east of the Mississippi."
“The bill green-lights the government's massive data collection activities that sweep up Americans' records in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” he added.