WASHINGTON – US lawmakers vowed to step up their campaign against government surveillance programs on Thursday after narrowly failing in a bid to end spying practices they have decried as unconstitutional.
Unconventional alliances of Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats nearly stunned the White House in the first vote to test political sentiment about the National Security Agency’s telephone data-mining program detailed by intelligence leaker Edward Snowden last month.
The amendment, which aimed to strip the NSA’s ability to collect telephone data on Americans not associated with a terror investigation, failed 205-217, but it sent a warning shot that momentum is shifting against the surveillance.
“You can feel a building crescendo about this issue in the House,” Democrat Gerry Connolly told AFP, adding that lawmakers will bring the issue up again for a vote at the earliest opportunity.
“My hope is this sends a strong message, and the administration will understand that and take appropriate action to try to allay the concerns that are growing… across the country and the world.”
The contentious debate pitted Democrat against Democrat, Republican against Republican, as they weighed the balance of national security and personal liberty.
The measure may well have passed, Connolly added, if some lawmakers had not yielded to last-minute lobbying by House leaders or agreed to give the administration more time to address concerns and implement civil liberties protections.
The vote was close enough that House Speaker John Boehner, who opposed the measure, felt compelled to vote, something that speakers rarely do.
“I voted last night because these NSA programs have helped keep Americans safe,” he said, adding that he allowed the legislation to come to the floor because “Congress couldn’t just avoid the debate.”
Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi voted no along with Boehner, citing the importance of the program, but agreed that debate was necessary.
“We voted on both sides of that resolution, but we stand together in our concerns about the how of the metadata collection,” said Pelosi, a former House speaker.
NSA supporters in the House and Senate have pointed out how the program has thwarted more than 50 terror threats, and warned that eviscerating it would deprive the United States of a crucial counterterrorism tool.
“You may have heard the expression that in order to find the needle in a haystack, we first need the haystack,” House Republican Joe Cotton said during debate.
“This (amendment) takes a leaf blower and blows away the entire haystack.”
Still, 94 Republicans broke with Boehner, highlighting the growing unease with which many lawmakers view the program.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, most Republicans supported the Patriot Act and its Section 215, which allows intelligence agencies to collect “any tangible things” from Americans for the purpose of an authorized terrorism investigation.
But many lawmakers have come to believe that section is being abused.
“Rein in government invasion,” House Republican Ted Poe boomed during debate.
“No more dragnet operations, get a specific warrant based on probable cause, or stay out of our lives.”
The next reauthorization of the Patriot Act is due in 2015, and Pelosi suggested it might have a tough road in Congress.
“I didn’t vote for the Patriot Act the last time it was up,” she said. “I had my problems with Section 215.”
The amendment’s author, Republican Justin Amash, was not surprised by the level of support for his measure.
“It is broad because the American people support it,” Amash told reporters. “It is not a partisan issue. It is about the American people versus the elites in Washington.”
Poll figures back him up. A new survey by MSNBC shows 56 percent of Americans say they are more worried that the US government will go too far in violating privacy rights. Other polls report a similar trend.
Rights groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology said the closeness of the vote showed “the tide is turning” in favor of privacy rights.
“As public opposition towards this troubling program grows, CDT will continue to press Congress to put an end to the blanket surveillance of millions of innocent Americans,” said CDT president Leslie Harris.