Senate's block of NSA bill sets up 2015 battle

Senators’ decision to block a major intelligence reform bill only pushed the issue off the table by a matter of months and guaranteed a tough fight early in 2015. 

Lawmakers on Tuesday came two votes short of the 60 needed to advance the USA Freedom Act, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) bill to reform the National Security Agency.

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Instead of squashing the issue for good, the 41 Republicans and one Democrat who opposed the measure ensured that a debate over the NSA would cloud the early days of a GOP-led Congress.

They might have even permanently doomed the NSA’s ability to search people’s phone records, some proponents of the bill said.

In the House, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinWH tried to stop Intel Dems' statement on Russian hacking: report This week: Shutdown deadline looms over Congress Week ahead: Election hacks, Yahoo breach in the spotlight MORE (D-Calif.) warned, “there were members who wanted to end the whole program.”

“I do not want to end the program,” she added. “I’m prepared to make the compromise”

“If we do not pass this bill, we will lose this program.”

At issue is the NSA’s ability to collect and search metadata about people’s phone calls, including which numbers people dial as well as the duration and frequency of their calls, but not their actual conversations.

Leahy’s USA Freedom Act would have moved the database of metadata out of government hands and required the NSA to obtain a court order before searching for specific terror suspects’ records.

Without reform, the program is set to expire in June.

Critics of the program have said that’s exactly what will happen if a bill like the USA Freedom Act is blocked.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act and the man behind the House version of Leahy’s bill, said earlier this year that federal officials “will end up getting nothing” if the program is not reformed. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a staunch critic of the NSA, said it wasn’t clear whether any type of reauthorization could get passed after Tuesday.

“Certainly, that’s the question,” he told reporters after the Senate vote. “At this point, people like me are going to ask, ‘How is your policy going to make people safer while, at the same time, protecting people’s privacy rights?’ because I think based on what I’ve heard, there wouldn’t be either.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, dismissed those concerns.

“It’s an important program, and this country has got serious issues relative to homegrown terrorists as well as those who are going to be coming to the United States to carry out actions,” the retiring senator said after Tuesday evening’s vote. ”I’m confident the next Congress will address it and do it in the right way this time.”

Like many Republicans who voted against the reform bill, Chambliss criticized backers for skipping it straight to the Senate floor without first receiving a vote in committee.

The issue will be one of the first tests for Republicans in their new role as majority in the upper chamber.

A fight over a new bill could splinter the party, especially given the contrasting views between possible 2016 presidential nominees, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was one of four GOP lawmakers to support the bill; Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who said that the bill was too weak on civil liberties; and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who feared it would handicap America’s ability to fight Islamic extremists in the Middle East.

Kevin Bankston, the policy director at the Open Technology Institute and a supporter of the bill, said after the vote that Republicans have “set up the GOP for an ugly intraparty fight over surveillance reform next year.”

Some advocates of reform have hoped that lawmakers will attach anti-spying measures to a funding bill or some other legislation, but the odds of that seem dim.

Instead, the stage seems set for a vigorous debate early in 2015.

“I expect that early next year we will again work to find a compromise that protects privacy while ensuring we have the tools to discover and defeat any plots against our nation,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee and supporter of reform, said in a statement on Tuesday.