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House leaders defend NSA support after close vote

An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland. REUTERS/NSA/Handout
An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland. REUTERS/NSA/Handout

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican and Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives on Thursday defended their support for a spy program that sweeps up vast amounts of electronic communications after it survived a surprisingly close vote a day earlier.

The House voted 217-205 on Wednesday to defeat an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have limited the National Security Agency's ability to collect electronic information, including phone call records.

The strong support for the amendment - bolstered by an unlikely alliance of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans - surprised many congressional observers because House leaders and members of the Intelligence Committee had strongly opposed it.

The vote reflected deep concern among members from both parties about the extensive data gathering exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which worries many Americans and could become an issue as members prepare for next year's election.

Republican Representative Justin Amash and Democratic Representative John Conyers co-sponsored the measure.

The White House and senior intelligence officials opposed the amendment, which had been prompted by Snowden's revelations. Snowden, a fugitive from the United States, has been holed up at a Moscow airport for the past month, unable to secure asylum.

Although Speaker John Boehner said he was glad the House had the debate, he was unapologetic about his vote, echoing the contention of the Obama administration and intelligence chiefs that the NSA program was essential for national security.

"I voted last night because these NSA programs have helped keep Americans safe. There are, in my view, ample safeguards to protect the privacy of the American people," he told a news conference on Thursday.

"I'm proud of my colleagues who stood up for what I think they believe was a program that really is working to help protect the American people," Boehner said.

More Democrats than Republicans voted for the amendment. The House vote split the parties, with 111 Democrats in favor and 83 opposed, while 94 Republicans were in favor and 134 against.

Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, who voted against the amendment, said Democrats voted on both sides of the resolution, but "stand together" in their concerns about the program.

"I don't want anybody to misunderstand a vote against the Amash resolution yesterday," she told her weekly news conference.

On Thursday, Pelosi sought signatures among her colleagues for a letter to President Barack Obama listing "lingering questions and concerns" about the data collection program and seeking more information, including whether the bulk metadata telecommunications collection sufficiently protects Americans' privacy.

(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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