State delegation split on blocking NSA spying
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After a last-minute plea from President Obama, West Virginia's delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives split along party lines in a close, contentious vote Wednesday evening.
That, by itself, is barely newsworthy.
What's interesting is that it was Representatives Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, both Republicans, who sided with Obama and Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat, who spurned the president.
The legislation, which failed by a closer-than-expected 12 votes, would have blocked the National Security Agency from collecting billions of phone records of American telephone calls.
The classified program, which recently came to light after disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, allows the NSA to collect phone numbers, locations and call durations from Verizon and other phone service providers.
The amendment would have ended blanket collection of phone data and allowed data collection only on persons under active investigation. It would not have affected foreign phone calls or the recently disclosed PRISM program, which collects mass amounts of email and Internet data from companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft.
Rahall said that Snowden's disclosures had caused him to change his mind.
"With the recent revelations about electronic eavesdropping by our nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies, I have been hearing from my constituents who are understandably concerned about their privacy rights and civil liberties," Rahall said in a written statement.
"I think it's essential for the Congress to act as a check on the executive branch, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats. I support congressional efforts to increase and strengthen oversight of intelligence gathering activities and believe steps should be taken to limit the collection of data that is not relevant to ongoing terrorist investigations," Rahall said.
The data collection programs were authorized by the 2001 Patriot Act. Rahall was one of only 66 representatives to vote against the Patriot Act. He also voted against its reauthorization in 2006, but then switched sides and voted for reauthorization in 2010.
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash, a second-term libertarian Republican, and Rep. John Conyers Jr., a 25-term liberal Democrat, made for some unusual alliances.
Capito and McKinley, in voting to continue the dragnet-style data collection, sided not only with Obama, but also with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner, who are rarely on the same side of anything.
Rahall voted with some of the House's most liberal members, who have long opposed the Patriot Act, but also with some of the most conservative representatives, including 26 members of the Tea Party Caucus.
Obama was not the only official who urged members of Congress to defeat the Amash-Conyers amendment.
Two of President George W. Bush's attorneys general and two of Bush's CIA directors sent an open letter on Wednesday to Congress, expressing strong support for the data collection programs.
Obama's former national security adviser, James L. Jones, also signed the letter, and Gen. Keith Alexander, the current director of the NSA, spent hours on Tuesday briefing legislators on the programs.
Capito implied that their input informed her vote.
"While I want to ensure that our civil liberties are protected, the Amash amendment is shortsighted and was hastily written," Capito said in a written statement. "Congress must maintain strong oversight over the NSA to protect personal privacy, but ending a program that defense and intelligence leaders say is vital to preventing terrorist attacks is not a step that I am willing to take."
Capito also voted for the Patriot Act in 2001, 2006 and 2010.
A McKinley spokesman said that the congressman was in transit Thursday and not available for comment.
Capito is running for the U.S. Senate seat that will be vacated by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., when his term ends in early 2015. She does not yet have a Democratic opponent, and is a heavy favorite over former state Delegate Pat McGeehan, who is also running for the seat as a Republican.
McGeehan, who was recently endorsed by the Republican Liberty Caucus, a libertarian group, sent out a press release Thursday, attacking Capito for voting with Obama.
"Our founding fathers warned us of giving up our liberty for a bit of security. Those actions are unacceptable in America," McGeehan said. "Had I had a vote on Amash's bill, I would have voted 'yes.'"
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.