NSA reform bill moves to House floor

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A House committee approved a major intelligence reform bill Thursday, setting the stage for a floor debate over U.S. spying.

The House Judiciary Committee's 25-2 vote to approve the USA Freedom Act is a major boost for efforts to rein in the National Security Agency (NSA), nearly two years after Edward Snowden’s first leaks about the agency and just a month before a key legislative deadline.

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The legislation would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, while also extending expiring parts of the Patriot Act until December 2019.

“The bill ends bulk collection, it ends secret law,” said Rep. Jim SensenbrennerJames SensenbrennerFor suburban women, addiction is a key election issue Dems amp up charges of voter suppression in Wisconsin Top Republican warns of discrimination at the polls in November MORE (R-Wis.), a co-author of the bill and the original author of the Patriot Act. “It increases the transparency of our intelligence community and it does all this without compromising national security.”

Congress has until June 1 to reauthorize three expiring portions of the Patriot Act, including the provision that authorizes the NSA to collect bulk records about millions of people’s phone calls. The NSA program collects phone “metadata” — such as the numbers involved in a phone call and when it occurred — but not actual content.

The USA Freedom Act would end the government’s ability to collect those records, and instead force agents to demand specific information from private companies. It would also add some new transparency provisions and place a new expert panel on the shadowy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

“The USA Freedom Act ensures that critical [intelligence] authorities are in place to protect our national security while also protecting our civil liberties so that we can regain the trust of the America people,” said Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteIRS head vows to finish term despite impeachment push House Republicans press case for impeaching IRS commissioner Saudis scramble for Washington allies MORE (R-Va.).  

Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Ted Poe (R-Texas) were the only two committee members to vote against the bill. 

The bill’s speedy movement through committee after being introduced just on Tuesday signals the blessing of both House leadership and the heads of the Intelligence Committee. There is no sign of major obstacles arising on its path forward in the lower chamber. 

A larger challenge for the bill might loom in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already introduced legislation renewing without change the three expiring parts of the Patriot Act, much to the chagrin of NSA reformers. 

The effort is likely to meet some resistance from defense hawks and civil libertarians alike, who alternately worry that it would go too far or not nearly far enough to rein in government spying on Americans. Groups included the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed the bill, saying that lawmakers should just let the Patriot Act provisions lapse on June 1. 

“Diehards from either end of the political spectrum will want us to march to the brink,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the panel’s top Democrat.

The careful tightrope the bill will have to walk was on full display during Thursday’s markup, when lawmakers debated for nearly an hour whether or not to expand the legislation to also cover NSA snooping on people’s Internet communications. While lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the spirit of the amendment, it was ultimately killed 9-24, out of concern that it could “blow up” the entire bill. 

A handful of other amendments were also killed, which would have expanded the powers of a new intelligence court advisory panel, created new outlets for whistleblowers and allowed spy agencies to make deals with phone companies to hold on to their records for a period of time, among others.

Thursday’s action came almost exactly a year after the House panel passed a similar version of the bill. That bill went on to sail through the House, though opponents said it had been watered down after leaving committee. Last year’s effort hit a snag in the Senate, when it came two votes shy of overcoming a GOP-led filibuster.