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Amash NSA Push Falls Just Short After Spirited Debate

Updated 8:17 p.m. | The White House and Republican and Democratic leadership marshaled their forces Wednesday to narrowly defeat an attempt by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., to defund the National Security Agency’s blanket collection of telephone records, but not before a heated floor debate pitting civil liberties against national security.

Amash faced extraordinary odds: leadership on both sides of the aisle registered opposition to the amendment; former attorneys general and executive branch officials penned a letter opposing the measure; outside groups such as the Heritage Foundation came out against it; newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, wrote op-eds rebuffing it; and the White House issued a rare statement of opposition against a House amendment.

The House killed the proposal, 205-217.

But the vote was much closer than the NSA, the White House or leadership wanted. The Amash amendment got 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats to go on record against the NSA surveillance program. A majority of Democrats effectively repudiated President Barack Obama’s handling of the program exposed by leaker Edward Snowden.

Snowden, of course, had called for just such a public debate and votes on the program when he revealed himself as the NSA leaker.

The vote made for strange bedfellows. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., all voted against the amendment. Pelosi spoke against the Amash’s amendment at a behind-closed-doors Caucus meeting Wednesday, according to a source in the room.

But it was Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, a fellow Michigan Republican, who led the charge against the proposal as a matter of life and death.

He referenced 9/11 and said that, after the 2001 terrorist attack, Americans asked “what if” there were a way we could have prevented the attack.

“What if we had caught it?” Rogers asked. “The good news it’s not theoretical. Fifty-four times this program stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks here and in Europe, saving real lives. This isn’t a game. This is real.”

Rogers said the amendment would have returned the nation to where it was on “Sept. 10.”

At one point, Rogers seemed to take a personal dig at Amash, who has enjoyed a flood of social media support during his NSA battle. Rogers asked his House colleagues, “Are we so small that we can only look at our Facebook likes in this chamber?”

Rogers said he would use an upcoming intelligence authorization bill “to work to find additional privacy protections with this program that has no emails, no phone calls, no names and no addresses. “

Amash rallied a bipartisan band of backers that stretched across the conservative-liberal divide — from former Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., to ranking Judiciary Democrat John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.

They cast his amendment as a referendum on civil liberties.

“We are here today for a very simple reason,” Amash said, “to defend the Fourth Amendment, to defend the privacy of each and every American.”

“It’s a question of balancing privacy and security,” said Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. “It’s a question of who will do the balancing. Right now, the balancing is being done by people we do not know, people we do not elect.”

Conyers, the lead Democratic co-sponsor of the amendment, told reporters after the vote that pressure on members to vote against Amash was “heavy.”

He said Democratic leadership may not have been engaging in a formal whip operation, but “there was one in existence” against it.

“They were very worried,” said Conyers, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee. “And the fact that they won this narrowly means they still are worried because this thing isn’t over yet. This is just the beginning.”

Emma Dumain and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.