The House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill Wednesday to dial back the once-secret National Security Agency program that collects and stores data from nearly every landline or cellphone call dialed or received in the United States.
The bill passed, 338 to 88, with Democratic and Republican majorities determined to rein in a domestic intelligence program that sparked sharp concerns in Congress about violations of privacy and civil liberties.
The House bill faces a hurdle in the Senate, however, where GOP leaders are backing a bill to renew the controversial NSA program through 2020 either unchanged or with minor amendments.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has said he will filibuster if the Senate is asked to renew the bill without changes. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another staunch opponent of the NSA program, has vowed to filibuster as well.
"The overwhelming vote in the House should send a strong signal to Senate Republican leaders that momentum is on the side of surveillance reform," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who also opposes the current program, said in a statement.
Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said legislation to stop the NSA from bulk collection of phone data “is trying to fix a system that isn’t broken.”
“As terror groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda grow in number, capability and technical sophistication, now is not the time to turn to an untested, unproven proposal as the House has done today,” Burr said.
The House bill would leave customers’ toll records with telephone companies, not the NSA. The government would need a court order to access specific records for terrorism or espionage investigations.
The Obama administration backed the House bill as a compromise that would preserve the government’s ability to track the communications of terrorism suspects and their contacts.
The dispute has taken on urgency because the provision in the USA Patriot Act used to justify the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records expires on June 1. If lawmakers fail to act by then, the program presumably will end.
"I’m not going to speculate on what the Senate may or may not do. But all I know is that these programs expire at the end of this month. They’re critically important to keep Americans safe," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Wednesday before the vote. "The House is going to act, and I hope the Senate would act soon as well."
Driving the debate was the decision last week by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the NSA had far exceeded its authority by collecting the call data of millions of people who were not specific targets. It did not order the program stopped, however, because of the likelihood of congressional action.
The House bill, called the USA Freedom Act, stops the NSA from storing domestic telephone toll records — the times, duration and numbers dialed or received of virtually every call.
Phone companies are required to keep customer toll records for at least 18 months under a Federal Communications Commission regulation. That rule will remain, so the NSA will have 18 months to seek permission from the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court to seek data held by companies.
The bill also creates a panel of independent advocates at the FISA court for the first time to argue on matters of privacy and civil liberties. The court, which was created under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act and meets in secret, now hears only from government lawyers.
Supporters of the House bill say it also would prohibit the NSA from indiscriminate collection on a smaller scale, such as requests for all calling records from a city, state or ZIP Code.
It also allows companies and individuals, for the first time, to challenge the gag orders that routinely come with data demands from the government under so-called national security letters.
The administration has always argued that the bulk collection of phone data, which began under President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is legal.
But a public outcry forced President Obama to call for moving the records out of government control after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the program’s existence in 2013.
If the House bill becomes law, it would mark the most sweeping change to emerge as a result of Snowden’s leaks.