Bipartisan Vote Saves Federal Government's Ability To Spy On Americans

Rep. Justin Amash (R), who proposed an amendment Thursday to require warrants for intelligence agencies looking into Americans as part of a surveillance program, exits the Senate chamber with Sen. Rand Paul (C) an outspoke critic on surveillance programs. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

More than 50 House Democrats joined a majority of Republicans to shoot down an amendment that would have reined in U.S. spying powers on Thursday, allowing a controversial surveillance reauthorization to pass with only minor reforms.

The 256-154 vote to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act capped a wild day of debate that started when President Donald Trump tweeted misleadingly that the National Security Agency's program "may have been so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others."

The president later backtracked. Dozens of Democrats then joined a majority of Republicans to defeat the amendment to curtail the government's spying power and, minutes later, pass the full bill.

Democratic leadership had tried to convince Republicans to postpone a vote on the bill—but neither Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi nor the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee Adam Smith supported the amendment in the end.

The amendment, proposed by Michigan Republican Justin Amash, would have required that the government get a warrant before looking through a surveillance database for information on Americans. The database is supposed to include communications of foreign nationals overseas, but Americans can get swept up in the surveillance, and current law does not require a warrant for the government to look through the info on Americans.

Known as 702 for its section of the FISA Amendments Act, the warrantless authority has been controversial for years, with the government declining to publicly disclose how many Americans have been ensnared in what is supposed to be surveillance of foreigners.

Constitutional protections do not apply to foreigners, so the larger bill has bipartisan support. But supporters of the amendment believe it is unlawful to collect information on Americans.

"Spying on foreigners without following the constitution, that is okay," Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu said during debate on the amendment. "Spying on Americans without following the constitution, that is not okay."

House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered the closing argument against the amendment, repeating a common talking point from opponents saying that not allowing law enforcement to dig through the data without a warrant would be dangerous.

"You pass the Amash amendment and defeat this underlying bill you go back to those days when we were flying blind on protecting our country from terrorism," Ryan said.

It wasn't the first time that the House has flirted with additional hurdles before the government can obtain information on Americans. House bills in 2014 and 2015 included restrictions, but the language was removed by the Senate.

Thursday's final bill did include a new requirement that the information gained by spying agencies can't be used against Americans in criminal suits unless there's a warrant, although that doesn't prevent intelligence and law enforcement agencies from accessing to Americans communications.

Trump had spent the morning going back and forth on the legislation, at first chastising the FISA law in a tweet as being behind surveillance of the Trump campaign, before supporting its passage hours later. On Wednesday night the White House had issued a statement saying it "strongly opposed" the Amash amendment citing security concerns.

Opponents of the bill think it gives the government too much surveillance ability.

"The government will use this bill to continue warrantless intrusions into Americans' private emails, text messages, and other communications," the ACLU tweeted. "No president should have this power."