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 McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Healthcare: Trump threatens to leave ObamaCare in place if GOP bill fails Senate GOP hedges on ObamaCare repeal timeline Chao: Trump tapped into 'a strain of anxiety,' 'fear' 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 PaulRand PaulPaul: Pence should oversee Senate ObamaCare repeal votes Healthcare fight pits Trump against Club for Growth GOP rep: Trump could be 'one-term president' if healthcare bill passes 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 NelsonBill NelsonOvernight Tech: Senate votes to eliminate Obama internet privacy rules | FCC chief wants to stay out of 'political debate' on fake news | Wikileaks reveals new CIA docs FCC chairman: Whether NY Times, CNN, NBC are 'fake news' is a ‘political debate’ Senators demand Pentagon action after nude photo scandal 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 HellerRed-state Dems in Supreme Court pressure cooker This week: House GOP faces make-or-break moment on ObamaCare Shutdown politics return to the Senate 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 BoehnerGOP rushes to vote without knowing full impact of healthcare plan Dem senator to reintroduce ‘buy American’ legislation GOP senators offer bill to require spending cuts with debt-limit hikes 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 LeahyLive coverage: Day three of Supreme Court nominee hearing Dems land few punches on Gorsuch Live coverage: Day two of Supreme Court nominee hearing 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 BurrSchumer: Trump must apologize for wiretapping claim Senate panel asks Trump ally Roger Stone to preserve Russia-related records Senate Intel Committee sets hearing on Russian election interference 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 BoehnerGOP rushes to vote without knowing full impact of healthcare plan Dem senator to reintroduce ‘buy American’ legislation GOP senators offer bill to require spending cuts with debt-limit hikes MORE to get a promise about that strategy.

Scott Wong contributed.