Senators from opposite ends of the political spectrum joined forces Tuesday to introduce sweeping legislation that would limit the National Security Agency’s controversial spying programs.
The USA Freedom Act’s sponsors include prominent liberals such as Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahySenate confirms first nominees of Trump era Senate gears up for battle over Trump's CIA pick Overnight Tech: Meet the key players for Trump on tech | Patent chief staying on | Kerry aide goes to Snapchat | Uber's M settlement MORE (D-Vt.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Tea Party conservatives such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
The bill, which was spearheaded by Leahy, would restrict the NSA to narrow, targeted searches of records about people’s phone calls while pulling back the curtain on the government’s spying regime.
Not everyone is on board, however. Senators on both sides of the surveillance debate lodged criticism, and the bill faces an uncertain path forward with time dwindling before the end of the congressional calendar.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) are among the senators pushing to go even further with legislation.
In a statement on Tuesday, they said that the bill was a “vast improvement” over the bill that passed the House earlier this year, but that it “lacks important provisions” restricting the U.S. from conducting warrantless “backdoor” searches of Americans’ communications through a legal authority only meant to target foreigners.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who has frequently lined up with the two western Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, shared his concern about the searches but nonetheless agreed to co-sponsor the Leahy bill on Tuesday.
“It’s a half a loaf,” he told The Hill. “I just think that it’s probably what we can get done in this Congress and I will continue to fight ... for what isn’t in this legislation.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a frequent critic of government spying, was notably absent from the list of sponsors for the bill.
More hawkish senators who have defended the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records are likely to fight the legislation.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) did not have an immediate reaction to the bill on Tuesday, but has pushed in the past for a controversial provision to require that phone companies keep subscribers’ records for a specific amount of time so they can later be searched by the government. Leahy’s bill does not include that requirement.
Earlier this week, Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said that differences between the Senate and House versions of the NSA legislation “are going to make it very difficult for that bill to go anywhere.”
Before unveiling his bill on Tuesday, Leahy had spent months negotiating with lawmakers as well as privacy advocates, the Obama administration and tech companies.
Though he may not have won over lawmakers such as Chambliss and Feinstein, Leahy’s outreach seemed to have garnered some support from the White House.
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement to The Hill that Leahy “has done remarkable work reflecting the equities of intelligence professionals while crafting privacy enhancements, and these efforts have yielded significant progress on issues vital to those stakeholders.”
Price did call for “a number of additional steps that must take place before this critical bill becomes law,” however, which could point to some changes in the coming weeks.
For civil libertarians, the bill is likely the best hope for reining in the spy agency this year, after the House passed a compromise version that they argue was gutted before it hit the floor.
Critics fear the House bill, which passed 303-121 in May, would allow agents to search for a broad array of records, such as anyone in a specific zip code or every Verizon subscriber. Tech firms and privacy advocates who originally backed the bill ended up withdrawing their support before it passed the chamber.
The new Senate version would require agents use a more narrow “specific selection term” to search for people’s data. It would also add new transparency measures and bring a team of civil liberties advocates to the secretive court overseeing surveillance programs.
“If we can enact this bill, get it signed into law, it would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA Patriot Act,” Leahy said on the Senate floor.
“It is an historic opportunity,” he added. “We would be derelict in our duty to this country if we passed up that opportunity.”
To speed up the chances that the senators can cast a vote this year and then haggle out the details with the House, Leahy said that he would skip the committee markup and bring the bill straight to the Senate floor.
One way or another, Congress has to pass some kind of NSA bill.
The legal authority for the agency’s phone records program expires next June. Without reauthorization, that leaves the possibility that the program could be cut off entirely, an outcome that intelligence officials have said would leave the nation vulnerable to attacks.
The looming deadline could force lawmakers to put their heads together over the August recess and find a way to advance the bill before the end of the year.
“We cannot let this opportunity go by,” Leahy said.
—This story was first posted at 6:01 a.m. and was updated at 5:19 p.m. and 9 p.m.