With clock ticking, lawmakers have no plan for reforming NSA

With clock ticking, lawmakers have no plan for reforming NSA
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Lawmakers are nowhere close to a deal to renew provisions of the Patriot Act, with a deadline little more than two months away.

They must now race to get legislation passed before the spying powers run out on June 1, potentially leaving the National Security Agency without tools that it says are critical to stopping terrorists.

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“We aren’t ready now, for sure,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley raises concerns about objectivity of report critical of GOP tax law's effects Overnight Health Care: Key Trump drug pricing proposal takes step forward | Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic loses bid for license | 2020 Democrats to take part in Saturday forum on abortion rights Key Trump proposal to lower drug prices takes step forward MORE (R-Iowa), who has been in negotiations with fellow lawmakers. 

Three provisions of the Patriot Act will expire on June 1. Among those is the controversial Section 215, which the NSA has used to justify bulk collection of records about millions of Americans’ phone calls.  

The program, revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden nearly two years ago, allows the agency to collect phone “metadata” — including details about who calls whom and when — but not record people’s conversations.

The congressional calendar has Congress out of town following Memorial Day, however, meaning the deadline is really May 22.

Intelligence officials have said they have no plan B for replacing the current program if it is allowed to expire, which, they warn, could handicap agents trying to prevent future attacks. 

“In the end, the Congress giveth and the Congress taketh away,” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said earlier this month.

“If that tool is taken away from us ... and some untoward incident happens that could have been thwarted if we had had it, I hope that everyone involved in that decision assumes the responsibility,” he added.

It’s not going to be an easy fight.

The NSA’s critics have eyed the deadline as their best shot for reforming the contested spy agency, after efforts failed to cross the finish line last year. Viewing the approaching date as giving them leverage to demand major changes, critics are sure to oppose any bill that gives a blanket reauthorization or makes only superficial changes. 

The competing interests cross party lines, which could cause a headache for Republican leaders.

A few Republican senators are sure to oppose a blanket reauthorization, and Senate leaders will need to peel off enough Democrats, who have largely backed stronger reforms to the NSA, to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

Last year, GOP Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz Hickenlooper, Bennet bring deep ties to 2020 debate stage 2020 Democrat Bennet releases comprehensive government reform plan GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE (Texas), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale Senate votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale MORE (Utah), Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary MORE (Nev.) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks Overnight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale MORE (Alaska) all joined Democrats in favor of an NSA reform bill that won the support of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and tech firms from Facebook to Google. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThis week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Washington braces for Trump's next move on Iran Overnight Defense: Latest on Iran after Trump halts planed strike | Dems call Trump's approach 'erratic' | Key Republican urges Trump to retaliate | Esper reportedly getting Defense secretary nomination MORE (R-Ky.), meanwhile, voted against it out of opposition to anything that would reauthorize the Patriot Act.

A lone Democrat, Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDemocrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 Poll: Six Democrats lead Trump in Florida match-ups How Jim Bridenstine recruited an old enemy to advise NASA MORE (Fla.), voted against that bill.

Privacy group and tech company critics of the NSA who lobbied vigorously in support of reform last year are sure to mount stiff opposition if they sense any effort to endorse the current spying program.

“In the end, if the bill is not effective in doing what it purports to do, then there will be a lot of concerns raised about that very publicly,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

There is work going on to bridge those divides, but it is still in its early stages.

“It’s going to be a tough one, but I really believe that they should be reauthorized,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinYoung activists press for change in 2020 election The Hill's Morning Report — US strikes approved against Iran pulled back Democrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the upper chamber’s Intelligence Committee.

“I think the security of the nation is at stake.”

There are blueprint plans from last year.

The USA Freedom Act, which came two votes shy of overcoming a procedural hurdle in the Senate, would have effectively ended the NSA program and, instead, required officials to obtain people’s records from their phone company only after receiving a court order. 

The House easily passed a similar bill last summer, though it was criticized for changes made late in the process that critics feared would have allowed the NSA to search for everyone in a specific area code. Half its co-sponsors ended up voting against it. 

Last month, House Judiciary Committee leader Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteTop Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview It’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling MORE (R-Va.) acknowledged those criticisms and predicted any new bill “will address some of the concerns raised at the very last minute.”

The Obama administration endorsed Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThis week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Congress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks MORE’s (D-Vt.) bill last year, and White House press secretary Josh Earnest recently reiterated that the administration “continues to stand ready to work with the Congress” on a new bill.

At the same time, he noted that Congress has a “limited window” to act.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills MORE (R-N.C.) made a pledge to The Hill. “I will do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t expire, but it’s not right now.”

When might a plan be on its way?

“Sometime before June 1st,” he said.