Senate barrels toward crucial NSA votes

Senate barrels toward crucial NSA votes

Pressure is mounting on Senate Republicans to move forward with a bill to reform the National Security Agency as the divided chamber nears a set of votes that will determine whether important portions of the Patriot Act expire.
 
The momentum late Thursday appeared to be on the side of reformers, whose hopes were buoyed by the near certainty that the Senate will either need to pass their bill, the USA Freedom Act, or allow three parts of the post-9/11 law to sunset.
 
The bill has the backing of the majority of the Senate — including all Democrats — but it remains unclear whether it has the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles during what increasingly looks like a rare Memorial Day weekend session.
 
“We’re building momentum. We’re not there yet but there’s a path,” Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle With religious liberty memo, Trump made America free to be faithful again This week: Time running out for Congress to avoid shutdown MORE (R-Utah), the leading Republican behind the reform push, told reporters on Thursday evening. “We’re getting more and more support — getting closer to 60 every minute.”
 

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The Obama administration has also been anxiously pressing Capitol Hill to act, fearing that lack of action could tie the intelligence community in legal and operational knots. 
 
“We’ve been making calls from the intelligence community, the law enforcement community and from the White House,” one senior administration official said. “There’s been no dearth of effort to try and provide folks information and answer their questions.”
 
Still, multiple Republican lawmakers said they had yet to make up their mind on the bill on Thursday.
 
If the USA Freedom Act does fail, it’s unclear whether there are the votes for Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit MORE’s (R-Ky.) effort to extend the current law without change for two months.

McConnell has said that the NSA reform effort would tie the hands of the intelligence agency, and his “clean” short-term bill would be prudent to make sure the law doesn’t expire.
 
Most Democrats are expected to oppose that, as are a handful of Republicans, including Lee and presidential candidates Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Fix what we’ve got and make Medicare right this year Despite amnesty, DACA bill favors American wage-earners MORE (Ky.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWith religious liberty memo, Trump made America free to be faithful again Interstate compacts aren't the right way to fix occupational licensing laws Texas Dem: ‘I don’t know what to believe’ about what Trump wants for wall MORE (Texas).
 
The lingering uncertainty leaves open the possibility that three key portions of the Patriot Act end up in the gutter once the clock hits midnight on May 31. Included among those is the legal section the NSA has relied on to collect bulk records about Americans’ phone calls, as well as provisions that the FBI has said are crucial tools to protect the country.
 
The Senate doesn’t actually have until the end of the month, however.
 
In the absence of congressional action, the NSA would have to start winding down its phone records program this weekend.
 
“It’s a very complex program,” the senior administration official said. “If there’s uncertainty about whether that’s going to be able to go forward in a reformed form, the NSA has to responsibly begin dismantling and unwinding that program and they have to begin that work now.”
 
The House passed the USA Freedom Act — by a sweeping 338-88 vote — before leaving town for a weeklong Memorial Day recess on Thursday.
 
If the Senate voted the bill down but approved a short-term patch, the law would still expire for at least a few hours on the morning of June 1 — unless, that is, House leaders chose to quietly pass a short-term reauthorization of the law while the chamber is out of town next week.
 
A House Republican leadership aide said that they “are not going to” use a voice vote to get “any type of short-term extension.”
 
Any such move would surely lead to an insurrection in the House, which has attempted to rein in the NSA on multiple occasions. Multiple House lawmakers in both parties have repeatedly objected to voting for a short-term bill.
 
But not everyone is convinced.
 
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), an ardent NSA critic, told The Hill on Thursday that he has gotten “zero” promises from leaders that a voice vote on a short-term extension has been ruled out.

“I just asked for an assurance and they wouldn’t give it to me,” he said.
 
Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE (R-Ohio) may have left the door open to such an act during his Thursday press conference.
 
"The House has acted," BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE told reporters. "Time for the Senate to act. If they act, we'll certainly look at what they do and make a decision about how to proceed."
 
The White House has urged senators to take up the reform bill, but also repeatedly declined to weigh in on the prospect of a short-term bill on Thursday.
 
In case both the USA Freedom Act and the short-term extension fail, the two leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Senate Intel chairman: No need for committee to interview Bannon McConnell: Russia probe must stay bipartisan to be credible MORE (R-N.C.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration MORE (D-Calif.) — have been working on separate backup plans that they say could provide the Congress with a path forward.
 
Both would share the broad outlines of the USA Freedom Act, they say, by ending the NSA's bulk phone records collection.
 
But Feinstein’s would include a provision requiring telephone companies to hold on to their subscribers’ data, to ensure that it is there for the NSA to obtain.
 
Burr’s bill, which he said he would unveil on Friday morning, would extend the length of time that the NSA has to give up its collection program, from six months in the USA Freedom Act to two years.
 
Either of those would only be possible after either a short-term lapse or a quick reauthorization while the House is out of town.
 
“We will attempt to do USA Freedom. I think that will be defeated,” Burr said on Thursday. “We will have a motion to proceed on a 60-day extension. I think that will fail.”
 
“Then it’s up to the leadership to determine what type of extension is reasonable,” he added. “That could be anywhere from five days to four weeks.”


“I think it’s just a matter of trying to eliminate options that are out there, and once those options have been eliminated ... then we’re down to what’s a reasonable extension so that we can find a way to get bipartisan legislation up.”
 
—Cristina Marcos contributed.