With clock ticking, lawmakers have no plan for reforming NSA

With clock ticking, lawmakers have no plan for reforming NSA
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Lawmakers are nowhere close to a deal to renew provisions of the Patriot Act, with a deadline little more than two months away.

They must now race to get legislation passed before the spying powers run out on June 1, potentially leaving the National Security Agency without tools that it says are critical to stopping terrorists.

“We aren’t ready now, for sure,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley on Trump calling Putin: 'I wouldn't have a conversation with a criminal' Lawmakers zero in on Zuckerberg GOP senator blocking Trump's Intel nominee MORE (R-Iowa), who has been in negotiations with fellow lawmakers. 

Three provisions of the Patriot Act will expire on June 1. Among those is the controversial Section 215, which the NSA has used to justify bulk collection of records about millions of Americans’ phone calls.  

The program, revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden nearly two years ago, allows the agency to collect phone “metadata” — including details about who calls whom and when — but not record people’s conversations.

The congressional calendar has Congress out of town following Memorial Day, however, meaning the deadline is really May 22.

Intelligence officials have said they have no plan B for replacing the current program if it is allowed to expire, which, they warn, could handicap agents trying to prevent future attacks. 

“In the end, the Congress giveth and the Congress taketh away,” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said earlier this month.

“If that tool is taken away from us ... and some untoward incident happens that could have been thwarted if we had had it, I hope that everyone involved in that decision assumes the responsibility,” he added.

It’s not going to be an easy fight.

The NSA’s critics have eyed the deadline as their best shot for reforming the contested spy agency, after efforts failed to cross the finish line last year. Viewing the approaching date as giving them leverage to demand major changes, critics are sure to oppose any bill that gives a blanket reauthorization or makes only superficial changes. 

The competing interests cross party lines, which could cause a headache for Republican leaders.

A few Republican senators are sure to oppose a blanket reauthorization, and Senate leaders will need to peel off enough Democrats, who have largely backed stronger reforms to the NSA, to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

Last year, GOP Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzConservatives balk over funding bill ahead of shutdown  Confirmation fight over Trump pick exposes blurred lines in GOP-LGBT activism GOP pushes to change Senate rules for Trump MORE (Texas), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeConservatives balk over funding bill ahead of shutdown  Overnight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps Senate sides with Trump on providing Saudi military support MORE (Utah), Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerRepublican drops Senate primary challenge to Heller after Trump's urging Three states where Dems can pick up Senate seats GOP senator: Justice Kennedy is going to retire this summer MORE (Nev.) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiProposed budget for Indian Health Services won't treat Native American patients equally Keep anti-environment riders for Alaska out of spending bill Industry should comply with the Methane Waste Prevention Rule MORE (Alaska) all joined Democrats in favor of an NSA reform bill that won the support of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and tech firms from Facebook to Google. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate approves .3 trillion spending bill, sending to Trump GOP senator threatened to hold up bill over provision to honor late political rival: report Conservatives balk over funding bill ahead of shutdown  MORE (R-Ky.), meanwhile, voted against it out of opposition to anything that would reauthorize the Patriot Act.

A lone Democrat, Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonSteyer brings his push to impeach Trump to town halls across the nation Overnight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps Senate sides with Trump on providing Saudi military support MORE (Fla.), voted against that bill.

Privacy group and tech company critics of the NSA who lobbied vigorously in support of reform last year are sure to mount stiff opposition if they sense any effort to endorse the current spying program.

“In the end, if the bill is not effective in doing what it purports to do, then there will be a lot of concerns raised about that very publicly,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

There is work going on to bridge those divides, but it is still in its early stages.

“It’s going to be a tough one, but I really believe that they should be reauthorized,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFeinstein, Harris call for probe of ICE after employee resigns Jeh Johnson: Media focused on 'Access Hollywood' tape instead of Russian meddling ahead of election What’s genius for Obama is scandal when it comes to Trump MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the upper chamber’s Intelligence Committee.

“I think the security of the nation is at stake.”

There are blueprint plans from last year.

The USA Freedom Act, which came two votes shy of overcoming a procedural hurdle in the Senate, would have effectively ended the NSA program and, instead, required officials to obtain people’s records from their phone company only after receiving a court order. 

The House easily passed a similar bill last summer, though it was criticized for changes made late in the process that critics feared would have allowed the NSA to search for everyone in a specific area code. Half its co-sponsors ended up voting against it. 

Last month, House Judiciary Committee leader Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteHouse Judiciary chair subpoenas DOJ for FBI documents House Judiciary chair to subpoena for FBI documents WATCH: Judiciary chairman questions whether Comey lied to Congress MORE (R-Va.) acknowledged those criticisms and predicted any new bill “will address some of the concerns raised at the very last minute.”

The Obama administration endorsed Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyMcCabe oversaw criminal probe into Sessions over testimony on Russian contacts: report Graham calls for Senate Judiciary hearing on McCabe firing McCabe firing roils Washington MORE’s (D-Vt.) bill last year, and White House press secretary Josh Earnest recently reiterated that the administration “continues to stand ready to work with the Congress” on a new bill.

At the same time, he noted that Congress has a “limited window” to act.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOvernight Cybersecurity: House Intel votes to release Russia report | House lawmakers demand Zuckerberg testify | Senators unveil updated election cyber bill Senators introduced revised version of election cyber bill Overnight Cybersecurity: Zuckerberg breaks silence on Cambridge Analytica | Senators grill DHS chief on election security | Omnibus to include election cyber funds | Bill would create 'bug bounty' for State MORE (R-N.C.) made a pledge to The Hill. “I will do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t expire, but it’s not right now.”

When might a plan be on its way?

“Sometime before June 1st,” he said.