Senate scrambles to save Patriot Act

Senate scrambles to save Patriot Act
© Francis Rivera

Senators are scrambling to nail down a way to preserve critical National Security Agency (NSA) programs before portions of the Patriot Act run out at the end of the month.

With just hours to go until the NSA begins to wind down its massive phone records collection program, the Senate is prepared to hold a rare weekend voting session to keep the Patriot Act alive.

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Senate GOP leaders have their backs up against the wall. Ahead of the prospect that three portions of the Patriot Act die, some Republicans seem inclined to allow for legislation that Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash House passes bipartisan bill to boost business investment MORE (R-Ky.) says would gut the NSA’s ability to protect the country.

“There’s a lot of moving parts right now,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said on Thursday, after a 10.5-hour floor speech from Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Nation editor: Reaction by most of the media to Trump-Putin press conference 'is like mob violence' Lewandowski: Trump-Putin meeting advances goal of world peace Rand Paul to travel to Russia after downplaying election meddling MORE (R-Ky.) stretched late into the night. “I don’t think everybody's locked in.”

Democrats appear united in support of an NSA reform bill called the USA Freedom Act, after Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback Senate Dems rip Trump after Putin news conference MORE (D-Fla.) reportedly said that he would support the bill on Thursday.

At least a half-dozen Republicans are also sure bets to vote for it, and multiple others have signaled that they are undecided. 

“I think they’re open,” said Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Jacky Rosen hits Dean Heller over health care in first negative ad GOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh MORE (R-Nev.), one of the Republican co-sponsors of the USA Freedom Act. “I’ve talked to several of my colleagues that will give USA Freedom Act a shot. They’ll support it.”

“But they’re also in support of a two-month extension,” he added. “Reasonable people want to solve the problem.”

House leaders have made clear that they are leaving town for a week-long recess on Thursday afternoon, after overwhelmingly passing the USA Freedom Act 338-88 last week. The bill would end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records — known as metadata — and reauthorize three expiring portions of the Patriot Act that NSA and FBI officials say authorize important tools to track terrorists.

The Patriot Act provisions expire on the morning of June 1 — the same day that the House is scheduled to return from its Memorial Day recess. Unless the Senate passes the House bill, those provisions will expire, at least temporarily.

“The House has acted. It’s time for the Senate to act,” Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFive GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups Veterans are left out of medical marijuana protections MORE (R-Ohio) said on Thursday, repeating a line he has given multiple times this week. “If they act, we’ll take a look at what they do and make a decision on how to proceed.”

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said that the NSA would need to begin winding down the phone records program if there is not a legislative solution by Friday. 

“Once the House leaves, we either take the House bill or end the whole Patriot Act,” said Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate Dems protest vote on controversial court pick Budget chairs press appropriators on veterans spending Kavanaugh paper chase heats up MORE (D-Vt.), one of the authors of the USA Freedom Act. “The choices are very simple.”

McConnell has scheduled a vote for that bill on Saturday. If it fails — as he expects — the chamber will then vote on a two-month extension of current law, to give lawmakers time to work out their differences.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrChristine Todd Whitman: Trump should step down over Putin press conference GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki GOP Intel chairman: Trump should recognize Putin lies MORE (R-N.C.), the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a supporter of McConnell’s strategy, said that House leaders were bluffing.

“The biggest mistake you can make is to take somebody at face value up here,” he said on Thursday. “If the best we can work out this weekend is an extension — a short-term extension — I think the House would go along with that in an effort to try to get a win-win.”

Burr said he had not spoken with BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFive GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups Veterans are left out of medical marijuana protections MORE to get a promise about that strategy.

Scott Wong contributed.