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August 20, 2014

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NSA spying legislation creates unexpected splits in Nevada delegation

Nevada’s elected officials in Washington, D.C., have made some unusual alliances of late when it comes to national security and civil liberties.

Democrats and Republicans aren’t dividing themselves on this issue in the typical party-line manner.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is sponsoring legislation to rein in the powers of the National Security Agency, whose vast surveillance programs and bulk data collection of Americans’ phone records have been revealed through the intelligence leaks of former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Supporters say it would increase transparency and protect the privacy rights of Americans. Opponents say the legislation goes too far, that it rolls back programs that have saved lives and halted a few potential acts of terrorism.

But even in a Congress noted for its strong divisions between Republicans and Democrats, the battle over national security and civil liberties has not prompted lawmakers to toe a definable party line.

In Congress, Nevada Democrat Steven Horsford of North Las Vegas and Republican Mark Amodei of Carson City have signed on to Sensenbrenner’s legislation.

Their colleagues, Democrat Dina Titus of Las Vegas and Joe Heck, a Republican from Henderson, have not.

Neither has Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who as Senate majority leader usually doesn’t sign on to legislation on which his Democratic caucus is divided.

Then there’s Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who’s teaming up with liberal Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on two bills that would roll back NSA surveillance powers.

“I believe these programs are an invasion of your privacy that is protected by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution,” Heller wrote in an editorial in the Review-Journal, noting that the National Security Agency could be breaking the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The split-party division makes this a tricky issue to navigate. One party can’t fire its usual broadsides against the other.

When the Nevada Republican Party lauded Amodei for a vote to defund the National Security Agency’s bulk phone data collection earlier this year, Heck got caught in the crossfire for being on the other side of the issue.

Outside of Reid, nobody in Nevada has more of a say on surveillance, spying and national security agencies than Heck, who sits on the House intelligence committee.

Heck has called Snowden a “traitor” who should be prosecuted. Earlier this summer, he defended the spying programs and hasn’t indicated how he’ll vote on the Sensenbrenner bill in the intelligence committee.

“As a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Congressman Heck is focused on ensuring that our intelligence gathering programs maintain national security while protecting the rights of American citizens,” said Greg Lemon, Heck’s spokesman.

Earlier this year, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., introduced an amendment that would defund the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone data.

It failed.

But it did illustrate the unusual split: Liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans voted for it, while Democrats and Republicans in congressional leadership positions and defense industry boosters voted against it.

That same mix holds true with the co-sponsors of the Sensenbrenner bill.

And it could hold true again when Congress considers its national defense spending levels and priorities later this month.

Nobody knows whether Sensenbrenner’s bill will get a vote.

But legislators likely will have to take votes on amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, the defense spending bill. Those amendments could address the National Security Agency and its surveillance activities.

Titus, who voted against defunding the program, said she’s weighing what needs to be done.

"It has become abundantly clear that the NSA has overstepped its intended boundaries,” she said. “It is critical that Congress take meaningful actions to increase oversight of intelligence programs and reform those that upset the critical balance between privacy rights and protecting the United States."

For the candidates who are running for Congress, the question is already an election issue.

“The revelations about the NSA indicate a serious federal government overreach, and this is an issue on which I differ with Joe Heck,” said Erin Bilbray, a Democrat who is running against Heck in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District. “I believe our intelligence agencies can keep us safe while also providing law-abiding Americans their privacy as it is guaranteed under the 4th Amendment. I would support legislation that strikes an appropriate balance between the two, and Congressman Horsford's bill does just that."

Horsford is a co-sponsor of Sensenbrenner’s bill.

Any votes taken on amendments to rein in the National Security Agency will likely happen before Thanksgiving when the National Defense Authorization Act is considered.

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