Senate GOP feels heat for NSA fumble

Senate GOP feels heat for NSA fumble
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans came under growing pressure on Monday to restore just-expired parts of the Patriot Act as soon as possible.

The White House and House Republicans both piled on, scolding the Senate GOP for not quickly passing the USA Freedom Act, a bill reforming the National Security Agency’s spying programs that was overwhelmingly approved by the House.

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The NSA’s phone data collection program went dark on Monday after the Senate approved neither the House bill nor a short-term extension of the NSA’s existing authority.

The White House argued the lapse is a danger to national security, something House Republicans echoed.

Democrats blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) for misplaying his hand, while McConnell pointed the finger at Sen. Rand Paul, his home-state Republican ally whose opposition to the Patriot Act is a central part of his presidential campaign.

Amid the GOP infighting, McConnell and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) sought to regain their footing and save face after their previous rejection of the USA Freedom Act.

They said the Senate would vote Tuesday on several amendments to the House bill — including language that would extend the amount of time the NSA has to give up its phone records program from six months to a year.

McConnell on Monday defended his amendments to the legislation, which would renew the Patriot Act provisions while also ending the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. phone records.

“These fixes are common-sense,” McConnell said on Monday morning. “And whatever one thinks of the proposed new system, there needs to be a basic assurance that it will function as its proponents say it will.”

But McConnell’s move comes with some risk.

Changes in the Senate bill would send it back to the House, where lawmakers warned they would reject the upper chamber’s demands. That could lead to a longer lapse of the NSA powers, which could open Senate Republicans up to more criticism.

“The House is not likely to accept the changes proposed by Senator McConnell,” the four bipartisan leaders of the House Judiciary Committee who helped write the bill said in a statement released Monday.

The statement came from Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), ranking Democratic Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who wrote the original Patriot Act.

“Section 215 has already expired,” they added, referring to the provision the NSA uses to authorize its phone records program. “These amendments will likely make that sunset permanent.”

Besides extending the transition period, McConnell is offering a substitute measure that would make phone companies tell the government if they plan to change how they store their records and have the government certify that the new regime would meet officials’ needs to get information without an unnecessary delay. A third amendment would change the structure of a new expert panel created to give advice to the federal court overseeing intelligence powers. 

Privacy advocates say that McConnell’s measures would weaken the bill, while White House press secretary Josh Earnest called McConnell’s plan to extend the transition period “completely unnecessary” and said he should “relinquish” the effort “for the good of the country.”

It’s possible that all three changes could win a majority vote in the Senate, however.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) — who has been reluctant to aggressively rein in the NSA — said on Monday that he would support making “minor modifications” to the bill and sending it back to the House. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, also expressed support for McConnell’s tweaks.

“Hopefully we will have three amendments that pass and we can report this thing out shortly after lunch tomorrow, if everything works well,” Burr said on Monday.

Still, McConnell has already misread the temperature in his caucus by pushing for a short-term extension of current law, which less than half the Senate was willing to back a week ago. It’s up in the air whether lawmakers will vote for his amendments, especially if it threatens to blow up the whole process. 

“Mitch McConnell has consistently overplayed his hand through this,” said Nadia Kayyali, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“He’s pretty clearly out of touch with the American people, and I think we can say after looking at what’s happened in Congress for the last couple of weeks, he is to a certain extent out of touch with Congress as well.”

While the House Judiciary Committee leaders warned changes would not be accepted, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was less absolute.

He told reporters the “best thing for the Senate to do” is to approve the House bill, but he repeatedly declined to speculate on whether the House would support changes to the legislation.

Jordan Fabian and Scott Wong contributed.