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Disagreements over NSA, Syria hold up defense bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Limits on secret U.S. surveillance programs and President Barack Obama’s push to help Syrian rebels were in dispute as the House weighed legislation to fund the nation’s military.

The House planned to begin debate Tuesday on the $598.3 billion defense spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, and late Monday the House Rules Committee voted to allow votes on the contentious issues.

Tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats insisted that debate on the bill include amendments changing the way the National Security Agency conducts its recently disclosed program of collecting phone records of millions of Americans. The same unusual coalition joined forces on amendments barring the administration from arming the Syrian rebels without congressional approval.

Republican leaders struggled to limit amendments on the overall bill, concerned about hampering the president’s national security and anti-terrorism efforts. The GOP also wanted to avoid the embarrassment of obstructionist rank-and-file Republicans joining forces with Democrats in rejecting the framework — known as the congressional “rule” — for considering the bill if their amendments were ignored.

Pleading with Rules Committee members Monday, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., sponsor of an amendment on the NSA, asked his colleagues to “allow the voice of the people to be heard.”

Amash said his measure would allow the NSA to collect data and records, but only if the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said in a statement that the collection of data pertains to an individual under investigation. Otherwise, the NSA would lose its funding.

Former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked documents last month that revealed that the NSA had collected phone records, while a second NSA program forced major Internet companies to turn over contents of communications to the government. Leaders in Congress, such as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., have strongly defended the programs, but libertarian lawmakers and liberals have expressed serious concerns about the government’s surveillance in a fierce debate over privacy and national security.

The overall defense spending bill drew an expected veto threat from the White House, which argued that it would force cuts to education, health research and other domestic programs to boost spending for the Pentagon.

The House also will consider an amendment that would bar funds for any military action in Syria if it violated the War Powers Resolution. Another amendment would prohibit money to fund military or paramilitary operations in Egypt.

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