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House narrowly votes down move to gut NSA data-collection program

After a fierce public debate over balancing national security interests with the privacy of Americans, the House narrowly voted Wednesday to continue a sweeping NSA program that collects phone record data on all American citizens.

The vote was 205-217. Ninety-four Republicans and 111 Democrats voted to defund the NSA data collection program. 

The charge to gut the NSA program, authorized under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, was led by 33-year-old conservative lawmaker Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., whose push forged unlikely alliances on both sides of the issue.

Amash argued that the NSA program -- leaked by contractor-turned-fugitive Edward Snowden -- infringed on the freedom of innocent Americans. A collection of libertarian-leaning GOP and liberal Democratic congressmen also co-sponsored the amendment.

"We're here to answer one question: Do we oppose the suspicion-less collection of every Americans phone records?" Amash said on the House floor.

His amendment earned fierce opposition from an unusual set of allies, ranging from the Obama administration to the conservative Heritage Foundation. 

Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the Amash amendment would "take us back to September 10 (2001)." 

In a statement Tuesday night, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney slammed Amash’s “blunt approach,” saying it failed to seriously consider the balance between civil liberties and national security.

‘We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools,” he said. “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.”

A group of powerful House chairmen also sent a letter earlier this week urging GOP colleagues to vote no on the amendment.

"While many Members have legitimate questions about the NSA metadata program, including whether there are sufficient protections for Americans' civil liberties, eliminating this program altogether without careful deliberation would not reflect our duty, under Article I of the Constitution, to provide for the common defense," the letter reads.

The Heritage Foundation, headed by former senator and Tea Party darling Jim DeMint, wrote Tuesday that the idea is “unwise and possibly unconstitutional.”

Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who opposed the amendment, agreed to allow a vote after Amash threatened to use procedural tactics to force one.

Amash was amongst a bipartisan group of House members who got a classified briefing on the data collection programs from NSA Director Keith Alexander on the Hill Tuesday afternoon. 

He said after the briefing that the amendment has "broad support among the Republican conference, and broad support among members of Congress in general."

The amendment is attached to the Department of Defense Appropriations act, which is expected to pass the House, but then be stalled in the Senate, where a separate appropriations process is slow-going.  The bill, in its entirety, has a veto threat looming over it from the Obama administration.