Proposed House Amendment Would Limit NSA's Authority

The House is voting on Wednesday on whether to take away funding from the National Security Agency for the program that collects the phone records of Americans. The amendment to the defense spending bill has the support of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, but is opposed by the Obama administration.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

House lawmakers will have their first chance today to vote on the government's phone surveillance program, since news of it was leaked by Edward Snowden. The House is considering an amendment that would limit the authority of the National Security Agency. It's an amendment the White House and top intelligence officials have urged lawmakers to vote down.

For more, we're joined from the Capitol by Tamara Keith. Hi, Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first of all, tell us exactly what this amendment would do.

KEITH: Currently the NSA collects data about phone calls in bulk. And Michigan Republican Justin Amash, who is lead author of the amendment, he says that this amounts to a violation of the Fourth Amendment; that it's unlawful search and seizure. And what he says this amendment would do is limit it to just people who are under investigation.

REPRESENTATIVE JUSTIN AMASH: This is the collection of all Americans' phone records. And all you have to do is go home to your constituents and ask them whether they think they have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their phone records. And they will tell you, yes.

SIEGEL: Tamara, this bill has created some unusual alliances. Justin Amash, who we just heard from, is a conservative Republican but some of his co-authors are liberal Democrats.

KEITH: Yeah, there's that thing where if you go far enough on the political spectrum that the ends meet back up, and they get along. Idaho Republican Raul Labrador, who supports the amendment, was speaking at an event today called "Conversations with Conservatives." And this is how he described the alliance.

REPRESENTATIVE RAUL LABRADOR: I call it jokingly the Wing-Nut Coalition, where you have the right wing and the left wing working together and trying to get things done.

KEITH: And in this case, they are very much working together. It's sort of a surprising list of co-authors on this bill.

SIEGEL: And who's forming the opposition to the amendment?

KEITH: Pretty much everyone else and that's also a really unusual alliance. So you have the White House and the Heritage Foundation; you have House speaker John Boehner; and you also have Minnesota Republican Michelle Bachmann who is on the House Intelligence Committee. Here's Representative Bachmann.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: It will be those who are seeking to achieve the goals of Islamic Jihad who will benefit by putting the United States at risk. And it will be the United States which will be at risk.

KEITH: And she argues that it isn't a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The director of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, was up on Capitol Hill yesterday essentially lobbying members in a closed door, top-secret session urging them - we believe - to vote against the amendment. The White House came out with a strongly-worded statement last night, saying that this blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process. There's a very strong push from establishment-Washington to get this thing to go away.

SIEGEL: Tam, that's a lot of lobbying power.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: But on the other hand, given the White House opposition, what if it does pass? What happens? And presumably it has little chance of becoming law.

KEITH: Yeah, obviously the president won't sign it. It won't become law. But if it does pass it sends a message that Members of Congress and the public, by proxy, have very strong concerns about this intelligence gathering; and would no doubt put pressure to begin this conversation to change the way the intelligence gathering is done.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Tamara Keith speaking with us from Capitol Hill.

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