A bill to end the government's bulk collection of telephone records got a unanimous go-ahead on Thursday from a second congressional committee, advancing the first legislative effort at surveillance reform since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the program nearly a year ago.
The House Intelligence Committee voted unanimously by voice vote for the USA Freedom Act, which would end the NSA’s practice of gathering information on calls made by millions of Americans and storing them for at least five years.
It would instead leave the records with telephone companies.
The panel's vote cleared the way for the measure to be considered by the full House of Representatives, a day after the House Judiciary Committee also approved the bill.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the intelligence panel's chairman, and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., said they were pleased the measure had garnered strong support from both Republicans and Democrats.
"Enhancing privacy and civil liberties while protecting the operational capability of a critical counterterrorism tool, not pride of authorship, has always been our first and last priority," they said in a joint statement.
The bill, a compromise version of previously introduced legislation, remained several steps from becoming law. But its strong support by the two House committees improved its chances after a year of sharp divisions over the revelations by Snowden.
While civil-liberties advocates consider the House bill a big step forward, more consensus is needed before the Obama administration stops sweeping up Americans' phone records and holding them for five years.
“This vote is a clear sign that the balance is shifting away from excessive NSA spying and back toward liberty," Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, told Al Jazeera.
"The momentum is on the side of privacy rights and limiting government power, and now the full House can pass a bill that rolls back bulk collection of Americans’ communications. While the legislation is not perfect, it looks like Congress will have the chance to pass meaningful surveillance reforms for the first time since the Patriot Act was passed in 2001, and that is very significant.”
The House could vote on the bill as early as this month, but it's unlikely that any final decision will come before the midterm elections in November. Republicans are cautiously optimistic they could win back control of the Senate, but they might be wary of a vote on such a contentious issue before Election Day.
The Obama administration and some lawmakers have defended the surveillance programs, while others have called for an end to the spying. The debate over balancing national security with civil liberties exposed divisions within the political parties.