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House votes to end NSA bulk phone data collection program; Senate likely won’t

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[FILE] A worker walks into the U.S. Cyber Command Joint Operations Center at the National Security Agency.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The House of Representatives approved a bill on Wednesday that ends the bulk collection of data under federal surveillance programs and creates a more targeted system for monitoring communications potentially impacting national security.

The vote on the “USA Freedom Act” was overwhelmingly bipartisan — 338-88 — and the opposition was split fairly evenly, with 47 Republicans and 41 Democrats voting against it.

Intelligence agencies can still have access to data collected by private telecommunications companies, but only after receiving authorization from the courts designated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

After the 9/11 attacks Congress passed the Patriot Act, a section of which became the basis for the massive data collection by the National Security Agency. Key provisions of that law involving electronic surveillance are due to expire at the end of the month unless Congress acts.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked classified documents that exposed the broad reach of government programs run by federal agencies in 2013, prompting members from both parties to call for a major overhaul of the programs.

In a closed-door meeting with House Republicans on Wednesday morning several conservatives complained they were not allowed to offer amendments to make further reforms in the bill, which was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last month.

“This is a very delicate issue. I know members would like to offer some amendments, but this is not a place for people to bring out the wrecking ball,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters after the meeting.

The Obama administration supports the USA Freedom Act, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, and other influential Senate Republicans oppose it. They want to pass a straight extension of the existing policy, arguing the world remains a dangerous place and it’s not a good time to water down the terrorist surveillance program.

The wildly differing approaches by the GOP leaders of the House and Senate had some Democrats concerned about how the issue will be resolved.

“I’m certainly worried,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut. “It certainly seems the House and Senate are full steam ahead on two very different paths. I want revisions to the Patriot Act, but I certainly don’t want the authority to expire.”

Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber who supports McConnell’s position, told CNN on Tuesday he expects two Senate votes next week on the issue: One would be on the House-passed USA Freedom Act and the second on a short term extension of the existing law for 30 to 90 days.

It’s unclear if either could get the 60 votes needed to pass.

Cornyn said the recent circuit court ruling the Congress had not specifically authorized the data collection program when it approved the Patriot Act was at odds with other appeals courts’ findings and that the Supreme Court should weigh in. A straight extension of the program would give the Supreme Court time to do so, Cornyn argued.

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