By Julian Hattem - 03/11/15 06:00 AM EDT
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.
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 CruzTed CruzWould internet transition have an impact on current US election? Trump haunts McCain's reelection fight The Trail 2016: On the fringe MORE (Texas), Mike LeeMike LeeThe impact of silence: The incarceration of children who have committed no crime Fidelity denies lobbying for student loan tax break Cruz, Lee question legality of Iran payment MORE (Utah), Dean HellerDean HellerMcAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat Senators offer bill removing hurdles to offering stock options Six senators call on housing regulator to let Congress finish housing finance reform MORE (Nev.) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiMcAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat Big Oil makes a push for risky and reckless Arctic drilling GOP divided over 0M for climate fund 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 PaulRand PaulTrump, Clinton boost Snapchat spending Clinton enjoying edge over Trump in Silicon Valley Trump gets little backing from Silicon Valley MORE (R-Ky.), meanwhile, voted against it out of opposition to anything that would reauthorize the Patriot Act.
A lone Democrat, Sen. Bill NelsonBill NelsonNew study. Space, security, and Congress Puerto Rico task force asks for help in charting island's economic course Making the switch to a more competitive freight rail industry 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 FeinsteinCelebrating the contributions of the National Park Service at its centennial France, Germany push for encryption limits Lochte apologizes for behavior in Rio 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 GoodlatteBob GoodlatteFather of slain reporter rails against ‘orange-faced Fuhrer’ GOP chairman denounces FCC media rules GOP preps tough perjury case against Clinton 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 Leahy'CREATES Act' would only create more lawsuits Sanders, liberals press Obama to expand closure of private prisons Police union: Clinton snubbed us 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 BurrSenate Dems' campaign arm knocks GOP for Trump support NC poll: Clinton up 2 points over Trump France, Germany push for encryption limits 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.