The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation to end the federal government’s bulk collection of phone records, exerting enormous pressure on Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, who insists that dragnet sweeps continue in defiance of many of those in his Republican Party.
Under the bipartisan bill, which passed 338 to 88, the Patriot Act would be changed to prohibit bulk collection by the National Security Agency of metadata charting telephone calls made by Americans.
However, while the House version of the bill would take the government out of the collection business, it would not deny it access to the information. It would be in the hands of the private sector — almost certainly telecommunications companies like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, which already keep the records for billing purposes and hold on to them from 18 months to five years. So for the NSA, which has been internally questioning the cost effectiveness of bulk collection for years, the bill would make the agency’s searches somewhat less efficient, but it would not wipe them out.
With the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the spy agencies or the FBI could request data relevant to an investigation. Corporate executives have said that while they would have to reformat some data to satisfy government search requirements, they could most likely provide data quickly. The legislation would also bar bulk collection of records using other tools like so-called national security letters, which are a kind of administrative subpoena.
The near unanimity in the House is not reflected in the Senate, where a bipartisan group that backs the House bill faces opposition from Mr. McConnell and a small but powerful group of defense hawks who want no change, and from another faction led by Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, that is pressing for even greater restrictions of data collection.
A compromise of some form must be reached before June 1, when the provision of the Patriot Act that allows the N.S.A. dragnet expires. “I think we have found an equilibrium on how to protect both security and privacy,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “These issues are not going away. I think the fact that the public is becoming much more united on how we balance these dual imperatives has ripened in a very constructive way.”
The debate over the issue, which intensified after the surveillance efforts were exposed by Edward J. Snowden, was complicated by a federal appeals court ruling last week that found the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records illegal, and by the coming expiration of the Patriot Act at the end of the month. In a demonstration of the complexity of the dynamics among Republicans, three of the party’s contenders for the White House hold disparate positions on the bill. Mr. McConnell has proclaimed that the legislation that passed the House, with strong support from Speaker John A. Boehner, “will neither keep us safe nor protect our privacy.”
“We have an obligation to protect the constitutional rights of every American,” said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas. “The USA Freedom Act ends the federal government’s bulk collection of phone metadata from millions of law-abiding citizens. That’s the right thing to do.” Democrats almost uniformly support a Senate bill that mirrors that passed by the House, as do at least 10 Republicans. While some Republicans support Mr. McConnell’s efforts, which were advanced without the support of the Senate Intelligence Committee, at least a dozen would not commit either way on Wednesday, underscoring Mr. McConnell’s challenge.
“I am trying to find a balance between protecting national security and individual liberty, which is one of the things I ran on,” said Senator David Perdue, a Republican freshman from Georgia. “This is not as black and white as everyone seems to think, and I’m trying to be very thoughtful with my vote on this.” Among the likely Republican presidential contenders, while Mr. Cruz favors the bill passed by the House, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida supports Mr. McConnell’s approach. Mr. Paul said the reform bill did not go far enough, a position now posited by some privacy groups in light of the court decision.
Some House Republicans were vexed that Mr. Boehner would not permit amendments to the bill on the House floor, but the speaker said, “This is a very delicate issue,” adding that the floor was “not a place for people to bring out the wrecking ball.” Many members of the House from both parties came to the floor to support the bill Wednesday. “Americans have long grappled with the need for security and their innate desire to protect their personal lives from government intrusion,” said Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Noting that the Patriot Act was born out of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Goodlatte added that while the law “helped keep us safe from implacable enemies,” the nation “must always be what it always has been, a beacon of freedom to the world.” Last year, the same measure passed 303 to 121, with substantially less Democratic support. There was some suggestion on Wednesday that senators were laboring to come up with a compromise that would allow Mr. McConnell to offer his bill, but with a generous amendment process that could essentially transform it into the House bill.
“I think that could happen,” said Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma and a member of the Intelligence Committee. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the co-sponsor of the bill with Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, said he knew of no such negotiations. “Nobody has talked to me about my bill,” he said. “I’m in the book.”
Some senators would prefer that the Patriot Act be extended for a short period while the Senate works its way through the issue, but it is not at all clear the House or Senate would let that happen. “I don’t think it is going to fly with those who want reform,” Mr. Schiff said. “The speaker understands the pulse of the House,” he added. “I think the Senate will see what an overwhelming vote it was in the House, and as we creep toward the deadline, they will have to figure something else out.”
Republican senators appeared to largely agree. “I don’t think we can have a straight-up authorization for long term,” said Senator Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado. “If there has to be some kind of short-term provision put in place, we can have those conversations, but I do not believe we should have an authorization without changes.”