The House Judiciary Committee put the NSA’s phone-snooping program on the path to being scrapped Thursday when a bipartisan majority voted for major reforms to the Patriot Act.
The 25-2 vote signaled that Republicans and Democrats in the House won’t accept a full renewal of the Patriot Act, whose key data-collection powers are slated to expire at the end of May. That puts a dent in the hopes of Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has argued the government needs the snooping powers to keep the country safe.
Opposing Mr. McConnell is House Speaker John A. Boehner, who said Thursday he is backing the reform bill that cleared the Judiciary Committee and now heads to the full House floor for a vote.
“It’s not everything I want, but I think it’s a solid agreement,” Mr. Boehner said.
The legislation would prevent the federal government from indiscriminately collecting and storing Americans’ data, and would also impose more transparency on the secret court that oversees intelligence collection. In a move to gain support of some hawks, the bill also imposes raised prison sentences on those convicted of providing material support to terrorists.
Known as the USA Freedom Act, it was designed to rewrite the Patriot Act’s Section 215, which authorizes the government to collect records from private businesses.
The most prominent use has been the National Security Agency’s program to scoop up and store five years’ worth of records of the numbers, times and durations of phone calls made within the U.S. The NSA insists it only probes the records when it believes a number is associated with a terrorism investigation.
But the program, revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden, left many Americans uncomfortable, and efforts to rein in the collection have been going on for two years.
“The bill ends bulk collection. It ends secret laws. And it increases transparency of our intelligence community,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and the author of the original Patriot Act, who says he’s been stunned by the way the Bush and Obama administrations used it to justify collecting data on every American’s phone calls.
It’s very similar to a bill that passed the full House overwhelmingly last year, also with bipartisan support.
Another version foundered in the Senate, though, after Mr. McConnell led a filibuster to block it during a lame-duck session of Congress late last year. The Kentucky Republican argues that the government needs the powers to combat terrorist threats.
Last week, Mr. McConnell introduced a bill that would extend the current Patriot Act Section 215 powers through the end of 2020.
Senate Democrats are generally opposed to Mr. McConnell’s bill, and even Senate Republicans are torn, with the more hawkish supporting it but civil libertarians, including presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, fiercely opposing it.
Mr. McConnell has only limited leverage in the debate since, without any action, Section 215 is slated to sunset as of June 1. He could try to push for a short-term extension to keep the debate going, or for some lesser alternative than the full extension of all powers — but he has been keeping his strategy closed.
A McConnell spokesman didn’t return a message seeking comment.
The issue appears to be trending away from Mr. McConnell. The biggest threat to the House bill came not from the hawks but from the other side, where Republicans and Democrats teamed up to try to further limit government searches under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That amendment failed — though only after some hand-wringing by lawmakers who wanted to vote for it, but feared upsetting the carefully crafted consensus.
“This amendment is objected to by many in positions to affect the future of this legislation,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.
The two “No” votes on the bill came from Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, and Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican.