Senate scrambles to save Patriot Act

Senate scrambles to save Patriot Act
© Francis Rivera

Senators are scrambling to nail down a way to preserve critical National Security Agency (NSA) programs before portions of the Patriot Act run out at the end of the month.

With just hours to go until the NSA begins to wind down its massive phone records collection program, the Senate is prepared to hold a rare weekend voting session to keep the Patriot Act alive.

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Senate GOP leaders have their backs up against the wall. Ahead of the prospect that three portions of the Patriot Act die, some Republicans seem inclined to allow for legislation that Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKey GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Trump hints at new executive action on immigration, wants filibuster-proof Senate majority The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump MORE (R-Ky.) says would gut the NSA’s ability to protect the country.

“There’s a lot of moving parts right now,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said on Thursday, after a 10.5-hour floor speech from Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulConservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Senate approves 4B spending bill Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report MORE (R-Ky.) stretched late into the night. “I don’t think everybody's locked in.”

Democrats appear united in support of an NSA reform bill called the USA Freedom Act, after Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report — Kavanaugh controversy consumes Washington | Kavanaugh slated to testify Monday | Allegations shake up midterms Florida governor booed out of restaurant over red tide algae issues MORE (D-Fla.) reportedly said that he would support the bill on Thursday.

At least a half-dozen Republicans are also sure bets to vote for it, and multiple others have signaled that they are undecided. 

“I think they’re open,” said Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE (R-Nev.), one of the Republican co-sponsors of the USA Freedom Act. “I’ve talked to several of my colleagues that will give USA Freedom Act a shot. They’ll support it.”

“But they’re also in support of a two-month extension,” he added. “Reasonable people want to solve the problem.”

House leaders have made clear that they are leaving town for a week-long recess on Thursday afternoon, after overwhelmingly passing the USA Freedom Act 338-88 last week. The bill would end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records — known as metadata — and reauthorize three expiring portions of the Patriot Act that NSA and FBI officials say authorize important tools to track terrorists.

The Patriot Act provisions expire on the morning of June 1 — the same day that the House is scheduled to return from its Memorial Day recess. Unless the Senate passes the House bill, those provisions will expire, at least temporarily.

“The House has acted. It’s time for the Senate to act,” Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBlue wave poses governing risks for Dems Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker MORE (R-Ohio) said on Thursday, repeating a line he has given multiple times this week. “If they act, we’ll take a look at what they do and make a decision on how to proceed.”

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said that the NSA would need to begin winding down the phone records program if there is not a legislative solution by Friday. 

“Once the House leaves, we either take the House bill or end the whole Patriot Act,” said Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDem senator praises Ford opening the door to testifying Ford opens door to testifying next week Senate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh MORE (D-Vt.), one of the authors of the USA Freedom Act. “The choices are very simple.”

McConnell has scheduled a vote for that bill on Saturday. If it fails — as he expects — the chamber will then vote on a two-month extension of current law, to give lawmakers time to work out their differences.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump assures storm victims in Carolinas: 'We will be there 100 percent' Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas Graham: Mueller is going to be allowed to finish investigation MORE (R-N.C.), the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a supporter of McConnell’s strategy, said that House leaders were bluffing.

“The biggest mistake you can make is to take somebody at face value up here,” he said on Thursday. “If the best we can work out this weekend is an extension — a short-term extension — I think the House would go along with that in an effort to try to get a win-win.”

Burr said he had not spoken with BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBlue wave poses governing risks for Dems Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker MORE to get a promise about that strategy.

Scott Wong contributed.