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 McConnellOn The Money — Democrats rush to finish off infrastructure Biden employs flurry of meetings to unite warring factions GOP senators say Biden COVID-19 strategy has 'exacerbated vaccine hesitancy' 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 PaulGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 White House debates vaccines for air travel Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken 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 NelsonEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Climate change turning US into coffee country Elon Musk mocks Biden for ignoring his company's historic space flight How will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? 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 HellerHeller won't say if Biden won election Ex-Sen. Dean Heller announces run for Nevada governor Former Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor 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 BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger 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 LeahyPhotos of the Week: Renewable energy, gymnast testimonies and a Met Gala dress Senators denounce protest staged outside home of Justice Kavanaugh Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' 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 BurrGOP senators say Biden COVID-19 strategy has 'exacerbated vaccine hesitancy' Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Emboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes 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 BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE to get a promise about that strategy.

Scott Wong contributed.