Scramble begins as Patriot Act teeters

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week GOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture MORE (R-Ky.) is running out of time to save sections of the Patriot Act that the White House deems crucial to national security.

Top lawmakers and their aides are scrambling to find a last-minute deal to save the law, which is speeding toward expiration — at midnight Sunday — after a series of Senate votes failed to resolve an impasse over the National Security Agency (NSA).


The White House is dialing up the pressure, with President Obama on Tuesday suggesting that the Senate should break from its Memorial Day recess to pass a bill that will “keep the American people safe and secure.”

“This needs to get done,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office. “And I would urge folks to just work through whatever issues can still exist.

“Make sure we don’t have, on midnight Sunday night, this task still undone.”

McConnell has already ordered senators back to Washington for a rare Sunday session, just hours before the Patriot Act deadline. It’s unclear what they might be voting on.

The deadline is flipping the script in Washington, with McConnell rather than Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) struggling to find a path forward on major legislation.

Earlier this month, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to renew the law, called the USA Freedom Act, in a 338-88 vote.

“It’s a credit to the leadership of the Speaker of the House that he was able to get bipartisan support for this compromise and get it passed in a timely fashion,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Tuesday, in a rare bit of praise for Boehner. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen that same kind of compromise from the United States Senate.”

One possible escape route for McConnell would be dropping his vocal opposition to the House bill.

That bill fell three votes shy of the necessary 60 over the weekend, but could see new life when the Senate returns on Sunday. The measure would renew three expiring Patriot Act powers while ending the NSA’s controversial bulk collection of U.S. phone records. Records would be held by phone companies instead.

The bill’s critics maintain that phone companies would be either unprepared or unwilling to swiftly respond to court orders and hand over information when needed.

Top intelligence officials say they are comfortable with the reforms.

McConnell and other Senate hawks have eyed a replacement bill, such as one from Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) that would give the NSA two full years to wind down its phone records program, unlike the six months in the House bill. 

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is working through the recess to hammer out a deal with his Senate counterparts, his office said.

But a number of obstacles stand in the way of passing anything other than the House bill.

Burr’s draft legislation is opposed by privacy advocates and appears unlikely to have the 60 votes necessary to move forward in the Senate.

Because of Senate procedural rules, any single lawmaker would likely be able to block legislation other than either the House bill or a backup plan from McConnell to renew the current law for two months. That temporary “clean” renewal won the support of just 45 senators when it came up for a vote over the weekend.  

Complicating matters further, the Senate isn’t scheduled to reconvene until 4 p.m. Sunday. The lower chamber isn’t due back until the following afternoon, so passage of anything other than the House bill would guarantee that the Patriot Act provisions lapse, if only for a few hours.

On Tuesday, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) — a staunch critic of the NSA — attended the House’s usually empty pro forma session seemingly to make sure that Boehner did not try to slip anything through while lawmakers were in their districts.

“At this late stage in the game, additions or changes to the USA Freedom Act would only result in added delay, a lapse in the programs, and add nothing to the reforms,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement to The Hill. “Now is not the time to jeopardize critical national security tools where there is a viable and well constructed alternative ready and waiting.”

The USA Freedom Act would need to pick up three votes to get the 60 required to overcome a filibuster

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who faces a tough reelection race is 2016, had voted for the reform bill before voting against it on Saturday morning. He could be convinced to vote yes.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) could be another yes. Enzi was the lone lawmaker not present at votes on Friday night, but has been critical of the NSA. Yet he has also said the House bill does not go far enough.

Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) are two others on the list of possible pickups — they, too, are expecting tough reelection races in 2016.

“I think it is definitely possible that we could get to 60 votes if USA Freedom actually ends up on the floor again,” said Kevin Bankston, the policy director at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.