Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Reid'Tuesday Group' turncoats must use recess to regroup on ObamaCare Dem senator says his party will restore 60-vote Supreme Court filibuster GOP senator lobbying colleagues to keep legislative filibuster MORE (D-Nev.) has placed Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyLawmakers talk climate for Earth Day, Science March Poll: Sanders most popular senator in the US Senate Dems offer bill to restore internet privacy rules MORE’s (D-Vt.) surveillance reform bill on the Senate docket.
Reid filed cloture on the motion to proceed to S. 2685, the USA Freedom Act, which seeks to end the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records, the most controversial program revealed by Edward Snowden more than one year ago.
The surprise move on Wednesday evening ends speculation about whether the bill would receive a vote this year.
“The American people are wondering whether Congress can get anything done,” Leahy said in a statement on Wednesday. “The answer is yes.”
“Congress can and should take up and pass the bipartisan USA Freedom Act, without delay.”
Votes to advance the measure aren’t expected until next week, and it could face an attempted filibuster from defense hawks who fear the bill would gut the country’s defenses against terrorism.
“It’s a terrible piece of legislation,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Hill off the Senate floor on Wednesday. “It destroys our ability to fight domestic terrorism in particular, and we’re going to hopefully be able to avoid having that bill come to the floor.”
In addition to ending the NSA’s phone records database, the legislation would also add a panel of civil liberties advocates to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and give tech companies additional ways to disclose the information that they are forced to hand over to the government.
While the bill has won support form tech companies, civil liberties groups and top intelligence officials and some Republicans, the measure faces an uphill battle in the post-election session.
Reid had seemed to indicate that the bill was not a priority during the lame-duck, and the White House might have hoped that it could get a friendlier bill next year, once Republicans take control.
The Senate vote comes after a companion NSA bill easily passed the House earlier this summer. By the time that legislation reached the floor, however, supporters of reform said that it had been gutted by House leadership and the Obama administration. Many of its original backers ended up voting against the bill.
Leahy’s legislation has drawn more support from critics of the spy agency, though they have warned that weakening it further could cause them to drop their support. Advancement to the full chamber could allow senators on both sides of the issue to file amendments either to rein in the bill or make it more aggressive.
Whatever happens, Congress is under intense pressure to act in the next seven months.
The NSA’s legal authority to collect and search Americans’ phone records is set to expire in June. If no reform or reauthorization bill is passed, that could leave the intelligence agency without a key tool to fight terrorists, officials have said.
If not now, an intense fight over the spy agency could be primed for early next year.
“If Congress fails to act now, it ensures that the new session will be overshadowed with a contentious debate over NSA bulk collection, with the possibility that provisions of the Patriot Act will sunset altogether,” said Nuala O’Connor, the head of the Center for Democracy and Technology and a supporter of the USA Freedom Act.
— Updated at 7:08 p.m.