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House poised to pass NSA reform

House poised to pass NSA reform
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The House on Wednesday is expected to easily pass legislation reining in the National Security Agency and extending expiring portions of the Patriot Act.

Passage of the USA Freedom Act would come two years after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about the spy agency and amid a congressional standoff over the spying, in which nontraditional coalitions have transcended party lines.

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“Most importantly, the bill, in the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, will, in fact, end bulk collection,” Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaMidterms in 2018 become most expensive in history Dems target small cluster of states in battle for House Painting of Trump with past GOP presidents hung up in White House MORE (R-Calif.) — a backer of the bill — said before the House Rules Committee on Tuesday evening. “This is a delicate balance of the existing needs under the Patriot Act with some significant improvements.”

Wednesday’s vote “undoubtedly will be very similar” to the House’s 303-121 tally on a similar bill last year, Issa predicted. That bill ultimately hit a roadblock in the Senate, where it came two votes shy of overcoming a filibuster.

If passed through the House and then the Senate, the USA Freedom Act would turn the page on one chapter of Congress’s struggle to assert control over the NSA in the two years since Snowden’s leaks.

Significant hurdles remain, however. Not only is the path forward in the Senate anything but clear, but House lawmakers on both sides of the surveillance debate are likely to oppose the bill for either going too far to rein in the NSA or for not doing enough.

The bill reforms the Patriot Act’s Section 215 — which the NSA has used to justify its bulk collection of records of numbers people call and when — as well as two other provisions in the law that are all set to expire at the end of the month. In doing so, it would effectively end the phone records program by forcing the NSA to get a narrower set of records from private phone companies.

It would also make public some secret legal opinions and details about federal searches, and would add an expert panel to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides oversight on intelligence activities.

The bill was written by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) — the original author of the Patriot Act, who has said he never intended the NSA to collect phone records from every American — as well as Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

In a statement of support on Tuesday, the White House said the bill “strikes an appropriate balance between significant reform and preservation of important national security tools.”

Civil liberties advocates had hoped it would do more.

On Tuesday, the Rules Committee blocked Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and others from adding any amendments to the legislation. Before the decision, leaders of the House Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill 25-2 last month, warned that disturbing the careful compromise could jeopardize support for the legislation from GOP leadership or the White House. 

While virtually all watchers expect the bill to pass on Wednesday, the final tally remains unclear.

A strong show of support from the House could put additional pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has so far resisted placing the legislation on his calendar. Instead, McConnell has pushed for a “clean” reauthorization of the Patriot Act provisions, setting up a standoff with just days to go until the June 1 deadline.