Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, and the committee's top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, said they were blindsided by the push, and they argued that the change would make it harder for lawmakers to oversee moves by an intelligence community that operates in secret.
Behind the scenes, the two senators lobbied party leaders to remove the provision from the bill to reopen the government -- and they plan to renew their effort to kill the provision during the next funding fight in three weeks, sources said.
Warner said the issue appeared to originate as an "internal squabble" in the House and there's a disagreement over "how problematic" it is.
On the floor of the Senate, Burr proposed an amendment, backed by Warner, to change the language in the continuing resolution that deals with how the intelligence community spends its funds. The bill says funds may be spent "notwithstanding" Section 504 of the 1947 National Security Act, the law that they say prevents the expenditure of funds absent congressional authorization.
"I really rely on the legal counsel that we have within the committee to interpret US law. It really doesn't take a law degree to understand that there's a huge difference between ignoring Section 504 -- notwithstanding -- or applying Section 504, which our change makes," Burr said on the Senate floor.
The language was added to the House's continuing resolution at the request of the White House's Office of Management and Budget on behalf of the Pentagon, according to Appropriations Committee aides. An OMB spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
A Senate aide said the language was included in a missile defense provision in the spending bill. It was included at the administration's request to clarify the use of the funds because they had been added as a supplemental separately from the last continuing resolution.
Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, disputed the charge from the Senate Intelligence Committee leaders that the language in the bill gives more latitude to the administration on how it spends funds. She said the language is specifically tied to the funding in the Pentagon's November budget submission, and is subjected to normal reprogramming requests that require signoff from the House and Senate Appropriations committees.
Burr's amendment would specifically state that Section 504 of the National Security Act applies to intelligence activities for the current fiscal year covered by the spending bill.
He tried to add the amendment to the floor by unanimous consent, but Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, objected.
In a statement, Cochran said the language in the CR "is included exactly as requested by the Administration, and is consistent with language that has been adopted many times in the past on continuing resolutions."
Burr and Warner vowed to fix the provision by the time the next funding bill needs to pass.
"It will only last three weeks," Burr said.
"We want to make sure we don't give a blank check to any administration, particularly this administration. We need to get it fixed," said Warner, who added that he was still voting for the underlying spending measure.