WASHINGTON — Despite last-minute criticism from privacy advocates, a bipartisan coalition in the House on Thursday easily approved a National Security Agency reform bill that aims to curb the government’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone call records.
The House voted 303-121 to send the proposed USAFreedom Act to the Senate, where top Democrats have vowed to reinstate privacy protections that critics said were weakened after negotiations between the White House and leaders on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers acknowledged the bill was not perfect, but they said it represented a first step in halting the dragnet-style sweep of data disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden a year ago.
“The USAFreedom Act is an important step in the right direction,” said the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Judiciary Committee, which crafted the bill, in a joint statement after passage. They called it “the first significant rollback of government surveillance” since the post-Watergate era.
The bill seeks to end the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata by requiring the government to make specific requests for phone or other business records. It also requires the government to obtain a court order, except in emergency situations, before conducting surveillance.
Privacy advocates withdrew their support for the bill after changes were made in the final days before the vote. Chief among their objections was the White House insistence on broadening the definition of the types of searches that can be conducted.
However, the advocates did not encourage a “no” vote and vowed to seek to reinstate privacy protections as the bill heads to the Senate.
“While far from perfect, this bill is an unambiguous statement of congressional intent to rein in the out-of-control NSA,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office. “While we share the concerns of many — including members of both parties who rightly believe the bill does not go far enough — without it we would be left with no reform at all.”