Justin Amash almost beat the NSA. Next time, he might do it.

Last night's remarkably close House vote on the NSA's bulk surveillance program can be read one of two ways. You could say it was a symbolic win for the agency's critics. Or you could say the House rejected an attempt to weaken the program. Which side you fall on this morning depends mostly on whether you think symbolism carries any weight in this debate.

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The fact that Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) failed to push through his amendment — one that would have limited the NSA's ability to gather telephone metadata on Americans — is a defeat for the congressman, of sorts. But even if the language had made it into the House's defense authorization bill, it would've been stripped out in conference with the Senate. It also faced a near-certain presidential veto. In short, there was an upper limit to how far Amash could've gone regardless of how the vote turned out.

Despite the amendment's iffy chances from the start, Amash and his co-sponsor, the liberal John Conyers (D-Mich.), were determined to test the waters. The results took most Congress watchers by surprise.

As we've seen in other debates over the NSA's surveillance, the roll call produced some interesting cross-cutting. Ninety-four Republicans sided in favor of the amendment, along with 111 Democrats. Missing, however, was transparency hawk (and darling of the Internet) Rep. Darrell Issa, who voted to uphold the NSA's surveillance program.

Issa didn't offer a public explanation for his vote, and efforts to reach his office received no responses Thursday morning.

Other committee leaders played a crucial role in rallying opposition to Amash. House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) spent much of Wednesday making calls to other members.

Amash faced stiff high-ranking opposition. The leadership of both parties, as well as the White House, vocally opposed weakening the NSA's ability to conduct surveillance. But Amash still managed to mount a strong defense — which suggests that momentum is  building for critics of the NSA.

"The tide is turning," read an update last night posted to DefundtheNSA.com, a Web site launched hours before the vote by Sina Khanifar, a digital activist. The site now has a list of the complete roll call, divided into two groups: those who voted for the amendment and those who voted against it. Beneath each lawmaker's photo is a button urging constituents to tweet or call.

“They were very worried,” said Conyers of the Democratic leadership, which opposed the amendment along with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “And the fact that they won this narrowly means they still are worried because this thing isn’t over yet.”

Earlier this month, polls from Quinnipiac and The Washington Post  showed a swing in public opinion against the NSA programs. That's in contrast to a Pew survey conducted immediately after the NSA story broke that showed only a quarter of Americans following those developments closely.

In a few weeks, the online advocates at Restore the Fourth plan to launch new protests against the NSA. In New York, the demonstrations will closely resemble the organization's events that took place  July 4. But in other cities, said spokesman Derick Bellamy, organizers will bring in policy experts to teach workshops and do a bit of on-the-spot education. Restore the Fourth aims to get 100,000 attendees during its "1984 Day" on Aug. 4.

Senior lawmakers and the White House hoped that last night's vote would become a release valve — a strategic opportunity to let upset congressmen blow off some steam. But, it seems, Team Amash views the amendment's defeat as simply a tactical setback.

Update: Sina Khanifar, one of the lead developers of DefundtheNSA.com, said the vote vastly exceeded even the expectations of many in the activist world.

"People were like, 'I think we'll get 150 votes if it goes really well,'" said Khanifar, who plans next week to help Restore the Fourth design its 1984 Day site.

FAQ: What you need to know about NSA surveillance and Edward Snowden

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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