Civil liberties groups urge Senate to debate surveillance bill

Reid is currently in discussions with lawmakers about taking up the bill with a limited number of amendments, a Senate aide said. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) are among the senators that hope to have their amendments considered.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Free Press have pressed the public to contact their senators this week about debating these amendments. The groups charge that the surveillance measure lacks transparency and could be used to sweep up American citizens' communications without a warrant.

In a blog post published on Wednesday, EFF called for more transparency about how the law works.

"Senate leaders, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell, owe the American public a debate about this law—including how many Americans have been scooped up in it, how many times it has been used in non-terrorism investigations and how much it has cost the American taxpayers," Trevor Timm, an activist at EFF, wrote in the post.

Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel in the ACLU's Washington office, also said the Senate should take some time to debate a handful of amendments to the bill rather than just passing a clean five-year extension of it.

Richardson said voting on the amendments would be an "opportunity to make even the most modest of changes to one of the most sweeping surveillance laws passed since 9/11."

The bill is set to expire on Dec. 31. The House voted in favor of reauthorizing the measure in September without adding any amendments—which GOP senators hope to do as well. 

Merkley plans to offer an amendment that would require the government to declassify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's opinions on surveillance requests. Wyden hopes to offer an amendment that would prevent intelligence officials from searching through the communications they've collected under the surveillance law for emails or phone calls of specific Americans.

Reid tried to bring up the measure with a handful of amendments on Tuesday, but Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) objected to the move and asked why the Senate couldn't vote on the five-year extension that the House passed. Chambliss noted that the Obama administration came out in support of the House-passed version of the bill.