WASHINGTON—House lawmakers on Wednesday defeated an attempt to drastically curb a national-security program that collects the phone records of millions of Americans, after a tense debate on the balance between privacy rights and government efforts to find terrorists.
The measure was narrowly defeated, 205-217, after last-minute lobbying by the Obama administration and House members on the intelligence panel, who said the program was crucial to national security.
Michigan Republican Justin Amash introduced a measure to cut funding for phone surveillance.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), who doesn’t often cast a ballot, voted against the amendment, reflecting nervousness among opponents about whether they would be able to defeat the bill.
The measure, from Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.), would have blocked funding for the National Security Agency to collect phone records unless they pertained to a particular person under investigation. The program came to public attention due to disclosures by Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who recently released details of two classified programs.
The Amash proposal, an amendment to the military-spending bill, which later passed, brought together libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats, who said the government was violating privacy rights. Rep. Jared Polis (D., Colo.) said the NSA program had “ruined and hurt our reputation abroad,” and urged that funding for it be stripped.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.), who helped write the law that is the basis for the NSA’s activities, said he hadn’t expected it to be used to create a sweeping data-gathering program. He also defended Mr. Amash’s amendment against criticism that it would completely shut down the NSA’s capabilities.
Senior House members on the intelligence panel defended the NSA’s data collection. “This isn’t a game,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.). “This is real. It will have a real consequence.”
Rep. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) said the amendment would hurt national-security efforts to find terrorists, which are often compared to finding a needle in a haystack. “This takes a leaf blower and blows away the entire haystack,” he said. “You will not have this program if this amendment passes.”
The vote showed the scrambled politics of the debate. Eighty-three Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), joined 134 Republicans to defeat the measure. Voting for the measure were 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats.
In another debate Wednesday on the defense bill, the House approved an amendment cutting certain aid to Egypt, where the military recently ousted the nation’s democratically elected leader. It also adopted an amendment eliminating certain funding for rebels in Syria.
Critics said the measures were unlikely to be signed into law, but the votes reflected increasing frustration with the Obama administration, which lawmakers say has made little effort to make a public case for intervening in two new overseas conflicts.