Pressure builds on Boehner for NSA vote

House Republican leaders are under pressure to allow a vote on legislation that would curb the National Security Agency (NSA).

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has defended the NSA’s spying programs, but a growing bloc of his conference is signing on to a bill that would end the NSA’s practice of collecting records on virtually all U.S. phone calls, which was revealed in leaks by Edward Snowden.

{mosads}One House Democratic aide argued that the Republican leaders are boxed in. If they don’t allow a vote on standalone NSA reform legislation, the aide said, members will demand NSA-related amendments to must-pass legislation like the defense and intelligence authorization bills.

“They’re stuck. They would deal with this in the way they deal with a lot of things — by just not moving the legislation,” the Democratic aide said. “Except how are they going to get other important pieces of legislation that they want to move unless they move this first?”

A GOP leadership aide acknowledged that 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 leadership aide said in a statement.

House GOP leaders allowed a vote in July on an amendment from Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) that would have ended the NSA’s phone data program. Despite opposition from party leaders and intense lobbying by the White House, the vote was surprisingly close — failing to pass by just seven votes.

As speaker, Boehner usually doesn’t cast a vote, but he broke the tradition to vote against the Amash amendment.

“There are, in my view, ample safeguards to protect the privacy of the American people,” Boehner said after the vote. “And I know how these programs have worked. I know how they’ve worked to protect the American people, and I felt very strongly about it.”

But he argued that the vote was an example of his belief that the House should be able to “work its will.”

Some members who voted against the amendment at the time said their opposition was not necessarily substantive, but that they believed such consequential legislation should receive more careful consideration.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, for example, voted against the Amash amendment but is now a co-sponsor of the USA Freedom Act — the primary bill to limit the NSA’s power.

The bill was authored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who helped craft the USA Patriot Act that the NSA cites when seeking court approval for data collection.

Sensenbrenner’s bill now has at least 102 co-sponsors, evenly split between 51 Republicans and 51 Democrats.

In a statement last month, Sensenbrenner said the Patriot Act has helped keep Americans safe, but that “somewhere along the way, the balance between security and privacy was lost.”

His bill would end the bulk collection of phone data, tighten oversight of the NSA and require more public disclosures of the agency’s surveillance.

“It’s now time for the Judiciary committees to again come together in a bipartisan fashion to ensure the law is properly interpreted, past abuses are not repeated and American liberties are protected,” he said.

But supporters of the USA Freedom Act will have to battle the defenders of the NSA — led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).

Rogers argues that the phone data program — which gives the NSA access to phone numbers, call times and call durations but not the actual contents of conversations — is critical for thwarting terrorists.

His committee had planned to move its own NSA-related bill that would preserve the core of the agency’s surveillance power, including the phone data collection.

Multiple aides said the panel had planned to vote on a narrow bill from Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) that would only require the NSA to report more information about violations of privacy rights.

But before the committee could vote on the bill, leadership intervened and had the mark-up cancelled, according to aides.

Several aides said that the Judiciary Committee has primary jurisdiction over the Thompson bill and other changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has not endorsed the USA Freedom Act, but he has been broadly supportive of reining in the NSA’s power.

A Goodlatte aide said in a statement that the chairman “has determined that we need to take legislative action.”

“Chairman Goodlatte is committed to working with members of the House Judiciary Committee, House leaders, and other members of Congress to ensure our nation’s intelligence collection programs include real protections for Americans’ civil liberties, robust oversight, and additional transparency, while maintaining a workable legal framework for national security officials to keep our country safe from foreign enemies,” the aide said.

The debate in the Senate over the NSA is following a similar path.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is pushing legislation to protect the NSA’s power, while Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is pushing the Senate version of the USA Freedom Act.

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), did not respond to a request to comment on where Reid stands on the issue.

Tags Bob Goodlatte Boehner Dianne Feinstein Harry Reid Jim Sensenbrenner John Boehner Justin Amash Patrick Leahy
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