WASHINGTON — A measure to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to collect the telephone records of millions of Americans was narrowly defeated last week in Congress.
The House vote, on an amendment that failed 205-217, was the first taken to address privacy concerns raised by public disclosure of the sweeping scope of the secret surveillance program leaked last month by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden.
Proponents from both sides of the political spectrum argued in favor of protecting the privacy rights of Americans who are not under investigation.
“We are here today for a very simple reason: to defend the Fourth Amendment, to defend the privacy of each and every American,” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a sponsor of the amendment.
Opponents — including leaders from both parties — argued that the NSA program is a necessary tool in the war against terrorism.
“This authority has helped prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. “We need to debate the scope of this program, and we are, but this is an extreme knee-jerk reaction to the situation.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who customarily does not participate in roll calls, voted against the amendment.
Floor debate on the issue drew contrasting opinions from two freshman lawmakers who served in combat in Iraq.
“I cannot in good conscience vote to take a single dollar from the pockets of hardworking taxpayers from across the country to pay for programs which infringe on the very liberties and freedoms our troops have fought and died for,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.
“Folks, we are at war. You may not like that truth. I wish it weren’t the truth. But it is the truth. We’re at war. Do not take this tool away from our warriors on the frontline,” said Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, voted to restrict the surveillance program. Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, and Cotton voted to maintain it.
Coal ash bill approved
The House voted to give states greater control over the disposal of coal ash rather than leaving the issue to the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate.
In 2010, EPA proposed regulating coal ash as hazardous waste — largely in response to an incident in Tennessee where local waterways were contaminated by the spill of more than 5 million cubic yards of the byproduct of coal-fired power plants. A final rule, however, is not anticipated until 2014.
Proponents of the bill said the EPA “hazardous” designation would severely curtail recycling of coal ash, which is used safely in cement and concrete. About 40 percent of the 140 million tons of coal ash produced annually is now recycled.
“A vote against this bill means that you support less durable, more expensive highways, schools and green buildings,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill.
Opponents argued that the bill fails to protect human health and the environment.
“It’s not about job-killing regulations. This debate is about whether or not we’re going to allow coal ash disposal sites to contaminate our water supplies and threaten human health,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
The bill was approved, 265-155. Voting in favor were Cotton, Crawford, Griffin and Womack.
Senate votes to lower student loan rates
The Senate set aside partisan differences to strike a deal that will keep interest rates on college loans from doubling as had been anticipated under current law.
Interest rates on subsidized undergraduate loans will reset to 3.86 percent for the fall. The rate had jumped to 6.8 percent on July 1 when Congress failed to reset current law.
“This compromise will save $30 billion in interest debt for students over the next four years. Undergraduates borrowing this year will save about $2,000 over the course of their studies, and graduates could save between $4,000 and $9,000,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
The bill would tie student-loan rates to 10-year Treasury notes, which could likely lead to higher rates in the future. The loan rates would be capped at 8.25 percent for undergraduates.
“The bill before us may be a good deal for current students in the short term, but it hurts their younger brothers and sisters in just a few years,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.
About 11 million students who take out loans each year would be affected by the legislation.
The interest rates on graduate loans would be 5.41 percent this fall and would be capped at 9.5 percent in the future. PLUS loans for graduate students and parents of undergraduates would be 6.41 percent and capped in the future at 10.5 percent.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said he expects the bill will be approved this week.
The bill passed, 81-18. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., voted in favor.