WASHINGTON — The movement to crack down on government surveillance started with an odd couple from Michigan, Representatives Justin Amash, a young libertarian Republican known even to his friends as “chief wing nut,” and John Conyers Jr., an elder of the liberal left in his 25th House term.
But what began on the political fringes only a week ago has built a momentum that even critics say may be unstoppable, drawing support from Republican and Democratic leaders, attracting moderates in both parties and pulling in some of the most respected voices on national security in the House.
The rapidly shifting politics were reflected clearly in the House on Wednesday, when a plan to defund the National Security Agency’s telephone data collection program fell just seven votes short of passage. Now, after initially signaling that they were comfortable with the scope of the N.S.A.’s collection of Americans’ phone and Internet activities, but not their content, revealed last month by Edward J. Snowden, lawmakers are showing an increasing willingness to use legislation to curb those actions.
Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, and Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, have begun work on legislation in the House Judiciary Committee to significantly rein in N.S.A. telephone surveillance. Mr. Sensenbrenner said on Friday that he would have a bill ready when Congress returned from its August recess that would restrict phone surveillance to only those named as targets of a federal terrorism investigation, make significant changes to the secret court that oversees such programs and give businesses like Microsoft and Google permission to reveal their dealings before that court.
“There is a growing sense that things have really gone a-kilter here,” Ms. Lofgren said.
The sudden reconsideration of post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism policy has taken much of Washington by surprise. As the revelations by Mr. Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor, were gaining attention in the news media, the White House and leaders in both parties stood united behind the programs he had unmasked. They were focused mostly on bringing the leaker to justice.
Backers of sweeping surveillance powers now say they recognize that changes are likely, and they are taking steps to make sure they maintain control over the extent of any revisions. Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee met on Wednesday as the House deliberated to try to find accommodations to growing public misgivings about the programs, said the committee’s chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California.
Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat and longtime critic of the N.S.A. surveillance programs, said he had taken part in serious meetings to discuss changes.
Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the panel, said, “We’re talking through it right now.” He added, “There are a lot of ideas on the table, and it’s pretty obvious that we’ve got some uneasy folks.”
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has assured House colleagues that an intelligence policy bill he plans to draft in mid-September will include new privacy safeguards.
Aides familiar with his efforts said the House Intelligence Committee was focusing on more transparency for the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees data gathering, including possibly declassifying that court’s orders, and changes to the way the surveillance data is stored. The legislation may order such data to be held by the telecommunications companies that produce them or by an independent entity, not the government.
Lawmakers say their votes to restrain the N.S.A. reflect a gut-level concern among voters about personal privacy.
“I represent a very reasonable district in suburban Philadelphia, and my constituents are expressing a growing concern on the sweeping amounts of data that the government is compiling,” said Representative Michael G. Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican who represents one of the few true swing districts left in the House and who voted on Wednesday to limit N.S.A. surveillance.
Votes from the likes of Mr. Fitzpatrick were not initially anticipated when Republican leaders chided reporters for their interest in legislation that they said would go nowhere. As the House slowly worked its way on Wednesday toward an evening vote to curb government surveillance, even proponents of the legislation jokingly predicted that only the “wing nuts” — the libertarians of the right, the most ardent liberals on the left — would support the measure.
Then Mr. Sensenbrenner, a Republican veteran and one of the primary authors of the post-Sept. 11 Patriot Act, stepped to a microphone on the House floor. Never, he said, did he intend to allow the wholesale vacuuming up of domestic phone records, nor did his legislation envision that data dragnets would go beyond specific targets of terrorism investigations.
“The time has come to stop it, and the way we stop it is to approve this amendment,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.
He had not intended to speak, and when he did, he did not say much, just seven brief sentences.
“I was able to say what needed to be said in a minute,” he said Friday.
Lawmakers from both parties said the brief speech was a pivotal moment. When the tally was final, the effort to end the N.S.A.’s programs had fallen short, 205 to 217. Supporters included Republican leaders like Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Democratic leaders like Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. Republican moderates like Mr. Fitzpatrick and Blue Dog Democrats like Representative Kurt Schrader of Oregon joined with respected voices on national security matters like Mr. Sensenbrenner and Ms. Lofgren.
Besides Ms. McMorris Rodgers, Representative Lynn Jenkins of Kansas, another member of the Republican leadership, voted yes. On the Democratic side, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Representative Xavier Becerra of California, and his vice chairman, Representative Joseph Crowley of New York, broke with the top two Democrats, Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California and Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who pressed hard for no votes.
On Friday, Ms. Pelosi, the House minority leader and a veteran of the Intelligence Committee, and Mr. Hoyer dashed off a letter to the president warning that even those Democrats who had stayed with him on the issue on Wednesday would be seeking changes.
That letter included the signature of Mr. Conyers, who is rallying an increasingly unified Democratic caucus to his side, as well as 61 House Democrats who voted no on Wednesday but are now publicly signaling their discontent.
“Although some of us voted for and others against the amendment, we all agree that there are lingering questions and concerns about the current” data collection program, the letter stated.
Representative Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, a Republican who voted for the curbs and predicted that changes to the N.S.A. surveillance programs were now unstoppable, said: “This was in many respects a vote intended to send a message. The vote was just too strong.”
Ms. Lofgren said the White House and Democratic and Republican leaders had not come to grips with what she called “a grave sense of betrayal” that greeted Mr. Snowden’s revelations. Since the Bush administration, lawmakers had been repeatedly assured that such indiscriminate collection of data did not exist, and that when targeting was unspecific, it was aimed at people abroad.
The movement against the N.S.A. began with the fringes of each party. Mr. Amash of Michigan began pressing for an amendment on the annual military spending bill aimed at the N.S.A. Leaders of the Intelligence Committee argued strenuously that such an amendment was not relevant to military spending and should be ruled out of order.
But Mr. Amash, an acolyte of Ron Paul, a libertarian former congressman, persisted and rallied support.
Mr. Sensenbrenner and Ms. Lofgren said they were willing to work with the House and Senate intelligence panels to overhaul the surveillance programs, but indicated that they did not believe those panels were ready to go far enough.
“I would just hope the Intelligence Committees will not stick their heads in the sand on this,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.View online: here.