Senate locked in evening NSA showdown


Senate locked in evening NSA showdown

The Senate is headed for a pair of late Friday evening votes on competing bills to reauthorize portions of the Patriot Act, with little certainty about the path forward.
 
Neither a National Security Agency (NSA) reform bill called the USA Freedom Act nor Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Push for national popular vote movement gets boost from conservatives To avoid November catastrophe, Democrats have to KO Sanders MORE’s (R-Ky.) two-month “clean” extension of the expiring Patriot Act provisions appears to have the necessary 60 votes to move forward.
 
Failure of both measures would increase the odds of an even shorter-term reauthorization of the current law — or the chance that the legal measures expire entirely.
 
“We’re just trying to figure out how to keep something going while we try to resolve the differences in those approaches,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCongress eyes killing controversial surveillance program Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican. Earlier in the day, Cornyn said he expects lawmakers will wrap up work on the legislation on Friday, and that he thinks leadership still has the votes to block the USA Freedom Act.
 
The last-minute anxiety comes as lawmakers are frantically looking for their way out the door for a long Memorial Day weekend and a weeklong congressional recess.
 
The USA Freedom Act would end the NSA’s controversial bulk collection of Americans’ phone records and make other changes to the nation’s intelligence powers. At the same time, it would renew three key portions of the law set to expire at the end of the month.
 
McConnell’s plan, meanwhile, would extend the law unchanged for two months.
 
The House easily passed the USA Freedom Act earlier this week before skipping town, leaving it as the only clear path to ensure that the Patriot Act powers don’t expire at midnight on May 31. The Obama administration has been eagerly lobbying Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to follow the House’s lead and keep the legal lights on.
 
But a core group of Republicans insists that the bill would weaken national security. Among other concerns, they say that language requiring the program to be shut down in six months is unworkable, and they would rather it have two years to ensure that no capabilities are lost.
 
Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSteyer calls for Senate term limits to pass gun control legislation Cruz targets California governor over housing 'prescriptions' This week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime MORE (R-Texas) — a presidential candidate and one of the co-sponsors of the USA Freedom Act — said that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the votes were coming together for his bill.
 
Advocates of the reform bill said they had identified a list of about ten GOP lawmakers who might be able to support their effort, including Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteLobbying World On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump GOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs MORE (R-N.H.), Patrick ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Penn.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). Many of those have previously said that they were as yet undecided on how to proceed.
 
However, the numbers became more difficult for supporters after Sen. Angus KingAngus KingOcasio-Cortez defends Sanders running as a Democrat: It's 'more than what you call yourself' Use of voting tabulation apps raise red flags on Capitol Hill Patrick Dempsey to star in pilot for CBS political drama 'Ways and Means' MORE (I-Maine) — who causes with Democrats — told reporters he would “probably not” vote to support the bill.
 
The stance is surprising, given that King voted in favor of similar legislation that came two votes shy of overcoming a GOP-led filibuster last year.
 
“I learned between last year and this year that the phone companies won’t agree to retain the data for any length of time, which renders the bill — as far as I’m concerned — ineffective,” King said. “If the phone companies can discard the data at any point then it doesn’t protect the public the way I think it should.”
 
Senate rules also appear to be working against the USA Freedom Act. Allowing the bill to go forward would likely lead to another day of extended debate on the bill, since lawmakers such as Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulCongress eyes killing controversial surveillance program Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick Congress set for clash over surveillance reforms MORE (R-Ky.) have demanded that they be able to introduce amendments.
 
That could be discouraging some lawmakers eager to get home for the weekend.
 
“That's what the proponents are saying: ‘If you get on the bill you're staying all week,’ and how do you win that argument?” said Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (R-Nev.), a cosponsor of the USA Freedom Act.
 
It is also unclear whether McConnell’s “clean” two-month extension would be able to pass, given the strong opposition from many Democrats and civil liberty-minded Republicans.
 
If neither can get the votes, GOP leaders may be prompted to look for an even shorter measure, to punt the debate until June.
 
“We’ve got two other choices, but if those choices aren’t viable, then I’m sure we’ll try to go for some shorter extension which will keep things going until we can actually get back and give people an opportunity to offer their ideas and have votes and work out the differences with the House,” said Cornyn.
 
However, it seems unlikely that that would prevent the law from expiring — at least temporarily. The House has already left Washington and Republican leadership aides have maintained they would not pull any tricks to file a short-term extension while lawmakers are away.
 
Cornyn rejected the notion that the House will let the Patriot Act provisions expire, saying "something will work out."
 
"The Senate's not going to be jammed by the House, and the House isn't going to let this program go dark," he added.
 
If both the reform and "clean" bills fail “then we’ll have to regroup and figure out where it goes,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSchumer requesting .5 billion in emergency funding on coronavirus Republicans give Barr vote of confidence Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick MORE (R-S.D.), the third-ranking GOP lawmaker.
 
“Might want to strap it in for a late one guys,” he told reporters.