House Votes to Curb NSA Data Collection, Setting Up Senate Battle

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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 29:  U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (L) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) answer questions at the U.S. Capitol February 29, 2012 in Washington, DC. Boehner and McConnell spoke about their luncheon with U.S. President Barack Obama and the topics discussed, including energy prices and a pending jobs bill in the House of Representatives.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
John Boehner and Mitch McConnell in 2012.Photo: Win McNamee/2012 Getty Images

A week after a federal appeals court ruled that the National Security Agency’s phone data collection program is illegal, privacy advocates scored another major win on Wednesday. In a 338-to-88 vote, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would revise and extend the Patriot Act, which expires June 1. The USA Freedom Act would end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, which was exposed by Edward Snowden two years ago, and replace it with a system that would allow the agency to request records held by phone companies on a case-by-case basis, with court approval.

Both Republicans and Democrats praised the bill on the House floor, saying it’s a good compromise between protecting Americans’ privacy and allowing U.S. spy agencies to continue their counterterrorism efforts. “I’ve seen firsthand the value these programs bring,” said Texas representative Will Hurd, a former CIA officer, “but I also know if Americans don’t feel they can trust their own government, we’re losing the battle right here at home.”

The bill does not have the same bipartisan support in the Senate, and its passage sets up a showdown among Senate Republicans in the next two weeks. President Obama, Senate Democrats, and a significant number of Senate Republicans support changing the phone data program, but the rest of the GOP is split between privacy advocates led by Senator Rand Paul, who say the reforms don’t go far enough, and defense hawks who want to simply reauthorize the existing Patriot Act.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the House bill “will neither keep us safe nor protect our privacy,” and he does not intend to allow a vote on the measure. Instead, he’s introduced a bill to extend the Patriot Act until 2020.

Congressional leaders may pursue a short-term extension of the bulk collection program if they can’t resolve the issue by the end of the month, but it’s unclear if even a temporary measure can pass. Republican congressman Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told the Washington Post that any extension passed by the Senate would go “absolutely nowhere” in the House. “The fact of the matter is, most of the people who voted against the bill [in the House] want to go even further on the civil liberties side,” he said. “It’s not a question of whether there are people here that want to do a clean reauthorization like Senator McConnell.”

The Wall Street Journal notes that, once again, the resolution could come down to House Speaker John Boehner making an uncomfortable choice: He can either stand up to McConnell and his reauthorization effort, or the 338 members of Congress who support NSA reforms. “The House is going to do its job and then we’ll let the Senate do their job,” Boehner said, vaguely, on Wednesday, but he did suggest that he isn’t about to let the Patriot Act die. “The programs expire at the end of the month and they’re critically important to keep Americans safe,” he said.