House Votes to Rein in NSA as Patriot Act Deadline Looms

Democrats and Republicans united to end mass spying in response to Edward Snowden disclosures, but the bill's fate in the Senate remains unclear.

The USA Freedom Act was spurred by revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. (National Journal)

Nearly two years after Edward Snowden first revealed the scope of the National Security Agency's vast spying operations, the House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to limit the agency's powers.

The bipartisan 338-88 vote comes just weeks before controversial surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire. The USA Freedom Act would extend the Patriot Act for four and a half years, but change the law to explicitly ban the mass collection of phone records or other data.

"As we speak, thousands—no, millions—of telephone metadata records are flowing into the NSA on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a sponsor of the bill, said on the House floor. "Despite changes to the NSA bulk telephone metadata program announced by President Obama last year, the bulk collection of the records has not ceased and will not cease unless and until Congress acts to shut it down."

The House approved similar legislation last year, but the bill narrowly failed in the Senate due to Republican opposition. Once again this year, despite the strong show of support in the House, the bill's fate in the upper chamber remains unclear.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans want to renew the Patriot Act without any changes to limit NSA spying. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other senators are vowing to block any bill that renews the Patriot Act without substantial reforms.

If Congress can't reach an agreement by June 1, the provisions will expire entirely.

The USA Freedom Act targets the first—and still most controversial—revelation from Snowden's leaks: the NSA's mass collection of millions of records on U.S. phone calls. Those records include phone numbers, call times, and call durations, but not the contents of any conversations.

The NSA collects those records in bulk from the phone companies and then mines through them to find possible connections to terrorism. Many lawmakers were shocked when they learned in 2013 of how the NSA was using its authority under the Patriot Act. And tech companies, who have struggled to rebuild trust in their services, especially overseas, have been lobbying for reforms.

The USA Freedom Act would prohibit the NSA from indiscriminately collecting records in bulk. Instead, the agency would be able to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for permission to obtain specific records from the phone companies. The NSA could ask for data on particular phone numbers or other "specific selection terms." But those terms couldn't be information such as entire zip codes or cities that would result in large-scale data collection.

The legislation aims to improve transparency by requiring that the FISC, the highly secretive court overseeing U.S. surveillance, make public any "significant" legal interpretations.

In a bid to bolster national security, the bill would make it easier to track suspected terrorists or spies as they enter or leave the country. It also would increase prison terms for anyone convicted of providing material support to terrorism.

Libertarian-leaning lawmakers such as Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., voted against the bill, saying it wouldn't do enough to protect privacy. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., argued that the bill won't stop the "most egregious and widely reported privacy violations" that occur under a separate legal authority. She voted for the legislation, but warned she may pull her support if the Senate weakens the legislation.

Others worried it would go too far in hamstringing the NSA as the nation faces threats from ISIS and Iran. Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes reluctantly backed the bill, but said it would leave the NSA "slower and potentially less effective."

The supporters argued the bill is a fair balance between privacy and security.

"There is no perfect," said Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the original author of the Patriot Act. "Every bill we vote on could do more. I play the lottery. When I win, I don't throw away the winning ticket because I wish the jackpot was higher."

Kaveh Waddell contributed to this article