The White House is putting its full weight behind legislation putting limits on U.S. surveillance and renewing key portions of the Patriot Act.
Before the House votes on the USA Freedom Act this week, the Obama administration said on Tuesday that it “strongly supports” the bill and wants the Senate to follow the House's lead.
“The USA Freedom Act's significant reforms would provide the public greater trust and confidence in our national security programs and the checks and balances that form an integral part of their operation," the White House added. “The administration supports swift House passage of the USA Freedom Act, and urges the Senate to follow suit.”
While the White House had previously said that it supported the bill, Tuesday’s statement is the strongest backing it has given for the congressional effort to rein in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) sweeping collection of Americans’ records.
The bill — which was authored by leaders of the House Judiciary Committee including Rep. Jim SensenbrennerJames SensenbrennerA guide to the committees: House House group seeks alternatives on encryption fight Congress should learn from states on civil asset forfeiture MORE (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act — would extend through 2019 three expiring provisions of the post-9/11 security law, including the contested measure that the NSA has relied on to sweep up millions of people’s phone records without a warrant.
At the same time, however, the bill would effectively end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, limit other types of collection, add a new expert panel to the secretive court overseeing intelligence operations and add new measures of transparency.
Instead of collecting all the phone records itself, the bill would force the NSA to search through private companies’ databases using a “specific selection term."
The legislation is expected to easily pass the House later this week after a 25-2 vote in the Judiciary Committee last month, but its future remains unclear in the Senate.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThough flawed, complex Medicaid block grants have fighting chance Sanders: 'If you don't have the guts to face your constituents,' you shouldn't be in Congress McConnell: Trump's speech should be 'tweet free' MORE (R-Ky.) has repeatedly expressed his support for the NSA’s current program and objected to efforts to kill it.
The Freedom Act “will neither keep us safe nor protect our privacy,” he said on the Senate floor last week.
The White House appeared to rebut those arguments on Tuesday. While the legislation would make various reforms, it said, it does that “while maintaining authorities to conduct more targeted collection.”
The hands of NSA reformers appeared to have been strengthened last week, following a sweeping court ruling declaring the NSA program, illegal. However, McConnell and other GOP opponents have refused to yield in their opposition to the bill, setting up a heated battle as the end-of-the-month deadline draws nearer.