The U.S. House of Representatives has narrowly rejected an effort to stop the National Security Agency from collecting millions of U.S. residents' telephone records.
Late Wednesday, the House rejected a bipartisan amendment, with more than 30 co-sponsors, that would have prohibited the NSA from bulk collection of phone records from U.S. carriers and cut off funding for the phone records collection program as currently designed.
The amendment, considered as part of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, would have allowed the NSA to continue collecting phone records of suspects, but only when relevant to an antiterrorism investigation. The NSA is part of the Defense Department.
House members who supported the amendment voted to "oppose the suspicionless collection of every American's phone records," said Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican and chief sponsor of the amendment.
President Barack Obama's administration opposed the Amash amendment, saying it would take away a valuable antiterrorism tool, but libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats teamed up to make the vote close. The final vote on the Amash amendment was 205 for and 217 against.
Opponents to the amendment argued it would kill a program the NSA has used to stop dozens of terrorist attacks. The amendment would "handcuff America and our allies," Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, said.
The amendment would have ended the phone records collection program, added Representative Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican. "It blows it up," he said.
Supporters argued the amendment would allow the phone records collection program to continue on a more limited basis. Before collecting phone records, the NSA should get a specific court-ordered warrant, or "stay out of our lives," said Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican.
The House also voted overwhelmingly to approve another NSA amendment, from Representative Richard Nugent, a Florida Republican, that would largely restate the rules under which the NSA currently operates. The Nugent amendment would bar the NSA from using funds to target U.S. residents in an Internet surveillance program that currently focuses on foreign suspects.
Nugent's amendment would also prohibit the NSA from storing the content of communications in the telephone records collection program, but the NSA has said it is not collecting the contents of telephone calls under the program.
Groups on both sides of the NSA debate lobbied heavily before the vote on the Amash amendment. Digital rights groups Fight for the Future and Demand Progress asked members to contact their lawmakers and ask them to vote in favor of the amendment. Several conservative groups also voiced support.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]