WASHINGTON -- In an unexpected move, a Republican- controlled House panel approved a nonbinding resolution yesterday aimed at prodding the Bush administration to deliver documents related to the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the measure introduced by Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, demanding that the administration turn over information about the NSA's collection of call data provided to the government by phone companies. The action came on a voice vote, with no objections.
The resolution, which has not been approved by the full House, stops short of forcing the administration to produce the information. But it is the strongest action taken by Congress in connection with the NSA program.
Wexler called the vote "an expression of frustration by the House of Representatives" and said the committee's GOP chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, is "serious and committed" about obtaining the information.
"It's an extremely positive development," Wexler said. "It's a reflection of the fact that the administration has gone way beyond the war on terror and has infringed upon the privacy rights and the civil liberties of ordinary Americans."
The resolution asks President Bush and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to turn over documents and other information about NSA activities. Wexler introduced the measure last month after USA Today reported that the spy agency had been compiling a huge database containing the phone records of millions of Americans.
Yesterday's move followed the narrow defeat on the House floor Tuesday of another measure aimed at the NSA program. The amendment would have withheld funding for any surveillance program that does not comply with the court review required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The measure failed by 12 votes, after attracting the support of 23 Republicans. Fifteen Democrats voted against it.
Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, a member of the Intelligence Committee, was the only Maryland congressman of either party to oppose it.
"There's clearly growing discord" over the program, said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, who backed the effort aimed at cutting its funding.
Flake said Congress' desire to force the administration to provide more information might be greater than he had thought.
He said Tuesday's debate and close vote might have influenced other Republicans on the House judiciary panel, including Sensenbrenner, who sided with the administration on Tuesday but supported Wexler yesterday.
Wexler said he hopes that the Bush administration will comply with the request for information without waiting for action by the full House. But it was unclear whether lawmakers would get the answers they seek.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said: "All of our intelligence activities that are being deployed in order to protect American lives from terrorist attacks are fully briefed to the appropriate members of Congress."
Administration officials contend that the NSA program is legal, citing Bush's powers as commander in chief and a broad congressional resolution passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks as justification. But some lawmakers and civil liberties advocates have said that isn't enough to bypass the 1978 FISA law, which was expressly written to put domestic spying under the jurisdiction of a secret court.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, whose Republican chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, has also sought more information on the NSA program, is scheduled to consider measures related to the surveillance program today. But Specter has twice delayed action as he continued to negotiate with the White House.
Lisa Graves, senior counsel for legislative strategy for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she hopes that the House committee's actions create new momentum in Congress, which she said has so far been "a maidservant to this president" when it comes to checking the power of the executive branch.
"We're certainly hopeful that this renewed effort in the House will have the effect of waking up the administration to its legal obligations to share its information with this co-equal branch of the national government," she said.