McConnell sets up Saturday Senate votes on NSA

Greg Nash

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellDems gain upper hand on budget Overnight Finance: Senate rejects funding bill as shutdown looms | Labor Dept. to probe Wells Fargo | Fed to ease stress test rules for small banks Overnight Energy: Judges scrutinize Obama climate rule MORE (R-Ky.) moved Thursday to end debate on two bills authorizing the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, setting up a pair of rare Saturday votes in the Senate.

McConnell filed cloture on the House-passed USA Freedom Act, which would reform the NSA programs. That bill passed the House in a 338-88 vote but has run into resistance from McConnell and other GOP senators.

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He also filed cloture on a two-month extension of the existing Patriot Act, which authorizes the NSA's collection of phone data, a controversial program exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The Senate is now set to vote to end debate on both bills on Saturday. A Saturday session could be avoided if a deal is reached earlier, but that would require the acquiescence of every senator. 

Without action by the Senate, provisions in the Patriot Act that the administration has used for the NSA surveillance programs will expire on June 1. With the House set to leave Washington on Thursday afternoon, that also means there would be at least a short lapse in the programs — unless the Senate approves the House-passed bill. 

The USA Freedom Act would end the NSA's bulk collection of phone records. Under the bill, the agency would have to ask private companies for a narrow set of phone records tied to a particular case. The NSA would also no longer hold the phone records in a government database.

It's not clear whether that bill will be able to win the 60 votes necessary to end debate. It's also not clear if a short-term extension of the NSA's powers would get 60 votes.

The Justice Department has warned lawmakers that the NSA will begin winding down the program on Friday, and FBI Director James Comey said other important law-enforcement mechanisms would also expire without action by Congress.