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NSA reformers zero in on the magic number

NSA reformers zero in on the magic number

Critics of the National Security Agency (NSA) are increasingly confident that they will pick up a trio of votes they need to get their reform bill across the finish line, following an after-midnight voting series a week ago that forced the Senate into overtime.
 
When lawmakers meet on Sunday evening, they will have just hours to save expiring parts of the Patriot Act that many have said are crucial to defending national security.
 
That prospect may force a handful of Republicans to switch their votes and support the USA Freedom Act, if it’s the only way to preserve the three parts of the counterterrorism law.
 

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“Hopefully they will be able to come back after eight or nine days of clearing their heads and put the best interest of our citizens, and our country, and our security first,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Friday.  The White House has been a strong supporter of the USA Freedom Act and has been ratcheting up the rhetoric in recent days to get the Senate to pass it.
 
Passage appears more likely after a backup plan from Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden says Beau's assessment of first 100 days would be 'Be who you are' McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal McConnell: 'Good chance' of deal with Biden on infrastructure MORE (R-Ky.) to extend current law for two months failed horribly last week, winning the support of just 45 lawmakers. McConnell — who staunchly opposes the USA Freedom Act — ended up voting against his own two-month extension in order to reserve the right to bring it back up for a vote this weekend.
 
“I think enough members were kind of shocked by how few votes they got on clean reauthorization,” said Josh Withrow, the legislative affairs manager at FreedomWorks, which wants to see the bill made stronger. “I could definitely see a scenario where a few of the people who were against the bill previously voting for it.”
 
As long as lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) aren’t able to gum up the works, “I do think we’re in a situation were I could see USA Freedom passing,” Withdrow added.
 
The USA Freedom Act would renew the three expiring parts of the Patriot Act but end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records — the most controversial program unveiled by Edward Snowden almost exactly two years ago.
 
In a vote that stretched into the early hours of Saturday morning last week, it came up 57-42 — three shy of the 60 votes it needed to overcome a filibuster. All Democrats except for Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) —who caucuses with Democrats — voted to back the bill, as did 11 Republicans.
 
However, a number of lawmakers may change their mind, especially if McConnell gives them permission to go ahead. 
 
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) was the sole lawmaker not present last weekend and appears ready to support the USA Freedom Act.
 
"The NSA needs to focus on suspected terrorists,” he said in a statement this week. “If it wants more information on someone, it should get a warrant from an independent judge, not one that it signs itself. Warrants should be targeted at information relevant to an investigation. “
 
However, he also indicated that reforms in the USA Freedom Act “still weigh too heavily in favor of the government rather than individuals.”
 
Still, multiple sources have said he appears ready to support the bill.
 
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is another lawmaker who reformers say is in their camp.
 
Kirk — who is up for a tough reelection race in 2016 — originally voted in support of advancing the USA Freedom Act last weekend, but then changed his vote to “no” when it seemed like the bill wouldn’t move forward. Given the opportunity to do so again, it seems likely he might be a “yes” vote.
 
Kirk’s office did not respond to inquiries about his change of vote last weekend.
           
That leaves just one needed vote, and reformers have a couple of targets in mind.
 
Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) voted against both the USA Freedom Act as well as McConnell’s two-month “clean” extension, which seemed to indicate that they were looking for some change in current law.
 
Multiple watchers of the process also suggested that Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) — another lawmaker facing a tough reelection matchup in a purple state — might be gettable, especially if GOP leaders don’t try and whip lawmakers to keep them in line.
 
“If it comes down to it, I think any one of those might flip,” said Nathan White, the senior legislative manager at the advocacy group Access. “If McConnell called unanimous consent to even bring this to a bill, he’d probably release them allow them to flip.”
 
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has taken a hawkish stance in the past, but told reporters that she was undecided before last week’s voting session. She is also facing a tough reelection race in 2016 and may be willing to support the bill.
 
King is another potential pickup. The independent from Maine caucuses with Democrats and voted for a similar version of the bill last year, but said he changed his mind in recent weeks after growing concerned that phone companies would not adequately retain customers’ records to hand over the NSA.  
 
At this point, the USA Freedom Act is essentially the only sure way to prevent the Patriot Act measures from running out at midnight on Sunday, since the House won’t return to Washington until Monday afternoon. Even hawks who vehemently oppose the bill seem to understand that it’s the only bet they have.
 
“Obviously anything is better than shutting down the whole operation,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reportedly said last weekend.
 
“The two most likely options are sunset — which is one path toward reform — or USA Freedom — which is another path toward reform,” said Sean Vitka, the federal policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, which has said it would prefer the legal provisions to die.
 
“That’s a good place to be.”