Washington: The authority of the National Security Agency to collect phone records of millions of Americans sharply divided members of Congress on Tuesday as the House pressed ahead on legislation to fund the nation`s military.
Small government, anti-tax conservatives and liberal Democrats backed an amendment to the USD 598.3 million defense bill that would end the NSA`s authority under the Patriot Act, preventing the government agency from collecting records unless an individual is under investigation.
That measure, along with another to cut off funds for the NSA, drew criticism from the leaders of the Senate Intelligence committee, who argued that the surveillance programs have helped disrupt numerous attempted terrorist attacks.
The House is likely to vote on those amendments tomorrow.
Former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked documents last month that revealed that the NSA had collected phone records, while a second NSA program forced major Internet companies to turn over contents of communications to the government.
Leaders in Congress, such as House Speaker John Boehner and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers have strongly defended the programs, but libertarian lawmakers and liberals have expressed serious concerns about the government`s surveillance in a fierce debate over privacy and national security.
The overall defense spending bill would provide the Pentagon with USD 512.5 billion for weapons, personnel, aircraft and ships plus USD 85.8 billion for the war in Afghanistan for the fiscal year beginning Oct 1.
But the House version would still have to be reconciled with a version being drawn up in the Senate and any eventual bill could still be vetoed by President Barack Obama.
The bill is USD 5.1 billion below current spending and has drawn a veto threat from the White House, which argues that it would force the administration to cut education, health research and other domestic programs to boost spending for the Pentagon.
In a leap of faith, the bill assumes that Congress and the administration will resolve the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that have forced the Pentagon to furlough workers and cut back on training. The bill projects spending in the next fiscal year at USD 28.1 billion above the so-called sequester level.
Republican leaders struggled to limit amendments on the overall bill, concerned about hampering the president`s national security and anti-terrorism efforts.