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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 GrassleyDems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October American Bar Association dropping Kavanaugh review Clinton's security clearance withdrawn at her request MORE (R-Iowa), who has been in negotiations with fellow lawmakers.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 CruzBeto O'Rourke will not share million he raised with other Dem Senate candidates Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Donald Trump Jr. blasts Beto O’Rourke: ‘Irish guy pretending to be Hispanic’ MORE (Texas), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenators pledge action on Saudi journalist’s disappearance Bernie Sanders: US should pull out of war in Yemen if Saudis killed journalist Senators warn Trump that Saudi relationship is on the line MORE (Utah), Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerObama to speak at campaign rally for Nevada Dems Poll shows Heller with 7-point lead in Nevada The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Trump travels to hurricane-ravaged Florida, Georgia MORE (Nev.) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiEx-Florida lawmaker leaves Republican Party Murkowski not worried about a Palin challenge Flake on Kavanaugh confirmation: To see GOP 'spiking the ball in the end zone' doesn't seem right 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 PaulNoisy democracy, or rude people behaving like children? Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks Five things to watch for in deteriorating US-Saudi relations 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 Nelson'Hamilton' star aims to educate displaced Puerto Ricans about Florida voter ID laws Trump: ‘Maximum effort’ taking place in Hurricane Michael recovery efforts The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Trump travels to hurricane-ravaged Florida, Georgia 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 FeinsteinAmerican Bar Association dropping Kavanaugh review Juan Williams: Trump, the Great Destroyer Top Judiciary Dems call for unredacted 'zero tolerance' memo 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 GoodlatteHouse Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein Fusion GPS co-founder will invoke 'constitutional rights not to testify': lawyers House GOP sets deposition deadline for Fusion GPS co-founder 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 LeahyOvernight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Missing journalist strains US-Saudi ties | Senators push Trump to open investigation | Trump speaks with Saudi officials | New questions over support for Saudi coalition in Yemen Senators trigger law forcing Trump to probe Saudi journalist's disappearance Justice Kavanaugh will be impartial, not political like his opponents 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 BurrCollusion judgment looms for key Senate panel The National Trails System is celebrating 50 years today — but what about the next 50 years? Key conservation fund for parks set to expire 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.