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.

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“We aren’t ready now, for sure,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Thanks to the farm lobby, the US is stuck with a broken ethanol policy 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 CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE (Texas), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSupreme Court takes on same-sex wedding cake case House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama Trump really will shrink government, starting with national monuments MORE (Utah), Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerDems look to use Moore against GOP Senate hearing shows Fed chair nominee acts the part Senate GOP votes to begin debate on tax bill MORE (Nev.) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments GOP on verge of opening Arctic refuge to drilling 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 PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State 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 NelsonOvernight Health Care: Ryan's office warns he wasn't part of ObamaCare deal | House conservatives push for mandate repeal in final tax bill | Dem wants probe into CVS-Aetna merger Ryan's office warning he wasn't part of deal on ObamaCare: source Overnight Health Care: Funding bill could provide help for children's health program | Questions for CVS-Aetna deal | Collins doubles funding ask for ObamaCare bill 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 FeinsteinGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Blumenthal: ‘Credible case' of obstruction of justice can be made against 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 GoodlatteRosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week Conservative pressure on Sessions grows Clock ticking down on NSA surveillance powers 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 LeahyAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign America isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Your tax dollars fund Afghan child rape 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 BurrSessions argued presidents can obstruct justice in Clinton impeachment trial Trump Jr. to meet with Senate panel amid Russia probe Trump’s Russian winter grows colder with Flynn plea deal 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.