Furious lobbying and last-minute pleas to lawmakers ensured victory for the Obama administration as the House voted 217-205 Wednesday to spare the NSA program.
Unbowed, the libertarian-leaning conservatives, tea partyers and liberal Democrats who led the fight said they will try to undo a program they called an unconstitutional intrusion on civil liberties.
Rep. Justin Amash, a 33-year-old Michigan Republican, made his intentions clear through the social media of Twitter: “We came close (205-217). If just 7 Reps had switched their votes, we would have succeeded. Thank YOU for making a difference. We fight on.”
The other sponsor of the effort, 84-year-old Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, said the slim margin ensures that vigorous debate on the NSA’s programs will continue.
“This discussion is going to be examined continually … as long as we have this many members in the House of Representatives that are saying it’s OK to collect all records you want just as long as you make sure you don’t let it go anywhere else,’” said Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. “That is the beginning of the wrong direction in a democratic society.”
The showdown marked the first chance for lawmakers to take a stand on the secret surveillance program since former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents last month that spelled out the monumental scope of the government’s activities.
Backing the NSA program were 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who typically does not vote, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Rejecting the administration’s last-minute appeals to save the surveillance operation were 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats.
At a news conference Thursday on a range of subjects, Boehner said he voted against the Amash amendment “because these NSA programs have helped keep Americans safe.”
He said Congress needed to have the debate, but it is unlikely to be the final word on the worldwide debate over the U.S. government snooping to defend the nation versus the privacy of Americans.
“Have 12 years gone by and our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened on Sept. 11?” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in pleading with his colleagues to back the program during House debate.
Amash defended his effort, saying the aim was to end the indiscriminate collection of Americans’ phone records.
His measure, offered as an addition to a $598.3 billion defense spending bill for 2014, would have canceled the statutory authority for the NSA program, ending the agency’s ability to collect phone records and metadata under the USA Patriot Act unless it identified an individual under investigation.
The House later voted to pass the overall defense bill, 315-109.
Amash told the House that his effort was to defend the Constitution and “defend the privacy of every American.”
Since the disclosures this year, some lawmakers have said they were shocked by the scope of the two programs — one to collect records of hundreds of millions of calls and the other allowing the NSA to sweep up Internet usage data from around the world that goes through nine major U.S.-based providers.
Proponents argue that the surveillance operations have been successful in thwarting at least 50 terror plots across 20 countries, including 10 to 12 directed at the United States.