The NSA Fight
The Michigan congressman determined to stop the NSA’s abuses wins a battle against House GOP leaders.

Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)



That flies in the face of the experience Amash and his allies had, according to their accounts. “I was going through the exact same thing,” Massie says, referring to an amendment he offered to the same bill, which was on U.S. foreign policy on Egypt. “The parliamentarian would say it was in order, and somehow leadership would come back and say, ‘No, it’s not in order,’” he recalls. “The idea that they were holding his hand on this is laughable.”

Those involved in the matter, including some who were neutral in the fight, say that, while it’s not unheard of for an amendment to be scrutinized on parliamentary grounds after it has been introduced, Amash’s proposal got far more examination than usual.

Not to mention, Cantor’s staff specifically raised it with Amash as a possible means of stopping the amendment.

The meeting between Cantor, McCarthy, and Amash came after Amash’s staff had already redrafted the amendment with the help of the “parls” to be impervious to procedural objections. Amash allies Mulvaney, Raul Labrador, and Jeff Duncan were also present.

Cantor, with McCarthy’s backing, wanted to push a vote on the issue to the Intelligence Reauthorization bill, a more traditional venue for a policy fight like this one. But that bill wouldn’t be considered for months. Amash, Massie, and others wanted a public debate on the issue now, while there was still public attention on the issue stemming from the Snowden leaks.

Amash made a counteroffer: He would drop the amendment for a floor vote, before the August recess, on a nonbinding resolution expressing the sense of the House on the NSA’s phone-records-collection program. Cantor rejected that idea. He then offered to drop the amendment if his bill on the issue received a hearing and markup in the Judiciary Committee before the August recess, then two weeks away.

After saying he would check with Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte on that option, Cantor came back Monday with a rejection of that offer as well.

The following Monday, with the amendment appearing destined to be denied a vote, Amash and Massie began working to enlist allies on a backup plan: to bring down the underlying Defense appropriations bill if the amendment didn’t get a vote.

Every time a bill is brought to the House floor, lawmakers vote first on a “rule,” which governs the debate over the bill, including how much time is spent on the floor talking about the bill and which amendments get voted on.

Rule votes are almost always party-line affairs. As soon as new members arrive in Washington, their party leaders begin drumming it into their heads that procedural votes like rule votes are “family votes,” in the words of McCarthy.

Since Democrats would be voting against the rule for the Defense-appropriations bill, it could take only a few Republicans to defeat it. (According to the actual vote on the rule that took place July 23, precisely 18 GOP “no” votes would have been needed to defeat it.)

Amash began circulating a letter Monday morning to gather supporters to defeat the rule if his amendment didn’t get the vote. Then he took to Twitter to publicize his effort. Leadership aides were enraged.

It’s an open question whether he and his allies really had the juice to bring down the rule. Leadership types claim it was never a worry. An Amash aide says in the few hours they whipped it on Monday, eight or nine members had already committed to vote against the rule, half the amount that was ultimately needed.

Representative Jim Jordan, the former chairman of the Republican Study Committee who remains a highly influential figure in the party, was thought to be a possibility to vote against the rule, several sources said. His vote alone could have pushed the rule over the brink, since dozens might have followed his lead.

Meanwhile, Amash’s office was trying to arrange for a meeting with Boehner for Amash to make one last pitch to the speaker on behalf of the amendment. Boehner was booked, his scheduler said, but Amash could try to grab him on the House floor that night at 6:30 p.m. That was after the Rules Committee, meeting at 5 p.m., was likely to make its final decision on whether to include Amash’s amendment.

The meeting  took place that night on the House floor, when Boehner finally relented and decided to allow a vote.

According to a Republican familiar with Boehner’s thinking, he did so partly because he knew a good number of Republicans wanted a public debate on the issue badly. But he also wanted to give the Obama White House a wakeup call on just how controversial — and thus endangered — the policy, which Boehner strongly supports, is in Congress.

Amash says the episode leaves him optimistic that the tide is turning in the debate. “We knew we would have an uphill battle, although we didn’t know from the outset that we would have to battle all of the forces that we did,” he says. “To get so close to passing the amendment when the odds were so stacked against us shows how much the debate on NSA’s blanket surveillance has changed.”

It was enough to drive his detractors nuts. “Leadership is turning him into a folk hero!” a GOP aide laments, arguing that the lead-up to the vote played into Amash’s David-vs.-Goliath narrative and enhanced his stature. The Politico piece had more than its share of shots at Amash. It quoted “several” Republicans calling Amash a “child,” which might have stung more if Congress weren’t practically a retirement home.

Will Amash turn the vote into the first battle in an ultimately successful war? On that question, the verdict is still out.

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @j_strong.