By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill to end the government's bulk collection of telephone records got a unanimous go-ahead on Thursday from a second U.S. congressional committee, advancing the first legislative effort at surveillance reform since former contractor Edward Snowden revealed the program a year ago.
The House of Representatives Intelligence committee voted unanimously by voice vote for the "USA Freedom Act," which would end the National Security Agency's practice of gathering information on calls made by millions of Americans and storing them for at least five years.
It would instead leave the records with telephone companies.
The panel's vote cleared the way for the measure to be considered by the full House of Representatives, a day after the House Judiciary Committee also voted unanimously to advance a similar, but somewhat more restrictive, measure addressing the collection of telephone metadata.
Republican Michigan U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, the intelligence panel's chairman, and Maryland Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, its top Democrat, said they were pleased the measure had garnered strong support from both Republicans and Democrats.
"Enhancing privacy and civil liberties while protecting the operational capability of a critical counterterrorism tool, not pride of authorship, has always been our first and last priority," they said in a joint statement.
The bill, a compromise version of previously introduced legislation, remained several steps from becoming law. But its strong support by the two House committees improved its chances after a year of sharp divisions over the revelations by Snowden.
Many lawmakers, especially those who work most closely with the intelligence community such as Rogers and Ruppersberger, had defended NSA program as legal and essential intelligence tools that have saved Americans' lives.
Others expressed outrage and called for the immediate end of the programs as a violation of Americans' privacy rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Gregorio)