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The House crossed a major hurdle in its efforts to rein in the National Security Agency when two oversight committees agreed this week on a proposal to end the agency’s practice of collecting Americans’ phone records and the bulk collection of all other records, such as credit card data. The House could vote on the bill as early as this month.
It was the first sign of consensus in the bitterly divided House on the controversial NSA surveillance programs since the spying was disclosed nearly a year ago. President Barack Obama has called for similar changes but is relying on Congress to hammer out the details. Senate oversight committees have yet to agree, which would be necessary before any new law is approved.
The House proposal — passed Wednesday by the Judiciary Committee and Thursday by the Intelligence Committee — would strengthen privacy safeguards for Americans’ communications that are swept up by the NSA. It also would require more transparency for disclosing how often private companies cooperate with the government on records requests.
Obama has not formally backed any of the proposals under consideration, but a White House spokeswoman said the bill is a “very good step.”
While civil liberties advocates consider the House bill a big step, more consensus is needed before the Obama administration stops sweeping up Americans’ phone records and holding them for five years.
It’s unlikely that any final decision will come before the midterm elections in November. Republicans are cautiously optimistic they could win back control of the Senate but might be wary of a vote on such a contentious issue before Election Day.
The Obama administration and some lawmakers have defended the surveillance programs, while others have called for an end to the spying. The debate over balancing national security with civil liberties exposed divisions within the political parties.
The House measure is not as strong as some privacy advocates and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would like. For instance, the proposal does not include a provision that would require the NSA to obtain a warrant before searching for Americans’ communications that were unintentionally captured in surveillance targeting foreigners overseas. Leahy said his committee will consider changes this summer.
A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said a vote for the bill has not yet been scheduled but could come the week of May 19.
It was unclear what the members of the House Intelligence Committee discussed during a meeting Thursday or why they did not consider their own legislation. Committee staff insisted that the meeting was open even though it was in a location closed to the public.
“The markup was considered ‘open’ but held in a ‘closed’ location so that members could easily close the session to discuss classified information should they need to,” committee spokeswoman Susan Phalen said.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
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