House GOP Leaders Hope to Block Amendments to Limit NSA Surveillance

Billy House

Internal House GOP tension has party leaders scrambling for ways to deal with fallout from their decision to limit amendments to the defense spending bill, made partly out of nervousness over attempts to stop the National Security Agency’s spying program.

The solution—linking the defense appropriations bill to another spending bill, with amendments limited on the first but not on the second—has some House Republicans up in arms.

“I find it almost comical,” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who has been urging GOP leaders to allow a debate on his amendment to curtail the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs. Amash called the leadership’s idea of putting two bills on the floor with different amendment procedures a distraction that “is not something anyone’s going to fall for,” least of all his fellow House Republicans.

The aim of GOP leaders is to show they are not abandoning the open amendment process they promised when they took the majority in 2011. Their idea, which could be taken up by the House Rules Committee as early as Thursday, is to connect the defense spending bill with the appropriations measure for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies.

As explained by party sources, the approach would be one rule that lays out a structured, limited floor process for the Defense Department bill, but at the same time also sets up a more open floor process for the Transportation-HUD bill.

“I think we want to show that doing DOD approps under a structured rule is not going to be the norm,” the aide said. “Doing THUD under an open rule shows that we are committed to keeping the approps process as open as possible.”

Republican leadership is acting preemptively to restrict the type of amendments offered by members of their own conference, as well as Democrats. That has proven to be trickier than simply limiting the number of amendments.

Amash predicted that unless GOP leaders relent to a more open process for the Pentagon bill, they will have a difficult time in getting their rule passed on the House floor.

As of early Wednesday evening, neither the defense nor the transportation spending bill were expected to reach the House floor for votes this week, though it was possible debate could start on the defense bill. The Rules Committee must establish the ground rules for action on all bills brought to the House floor.

House Republican leaders certainly have not disguised their reasoning for wanting to limit amendments to the defense spending bill.

They remain nervous about potentially sensitive amendments relating to NSA surveillance that could grab significant support from liberal Democrats as well as the backing of libertarian-minded Republicans. They also are concerned about amendments to cut off aid to Egypt or funding for activities in Syria.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter dated July 11, House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, informed members that the panel would “consider a rule that may limit the amendment process” for the defense appropriations bill.

“While this is not the traditional process for this bill, there are a number of sensitive and ongoing issues related to national security that are more appropriately handled through an orderly amendment process ensuring timely consideration of this important measure,” Sessions wrote in the letter.

Even so, among the 167 proposed amendments to the Pentagon spending bill submitted to the Rules Committee, there are a number from Amash and others that seek to address NSA surveillance, Egypt, or Syria.

Amash’s NSA amendment is reflective of a bipartisan bill also sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the House Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, and others. It would end the authority for the blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act, and bar the NSA and other agencies from collecting telephone and other records from anyone who is not the subject of an investigation.

“Democrats think appropriations bills should be brought to the floor under an open rule, as the majority pledged,” said Matthew Dennis, a spokesman for Appropriations ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. Another senior Democratic aide said the battle is “an internal thing for them. It has nothing to do with our side.”