Senate votes to end NSA debate

Senate votes to end NSA debate
© Francis Rivera

The Senate voted to end debate on legislation reforming the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance powers on Tuesday — two days after the legal authority for the programs expired.

In an 83-14 vote, the Senate moved to set up a final vote on the measure, but it must first decide whether to add amendments backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic field narrows with Inslee exit McConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster MORE (Ky.) and other Republicans.

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If those amendments are added in votes planned for Tuesday afternoon, the House would have to vote again on the bill to send it to Obama, causing a further lapse in the NSA powers.

McConnell and Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGraham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Rand Paul to 'limit' August activities due to health MORE (R-Ky.) have both come under criticism for the delay.

Paul last month blocked the Senate from approving a short-term extension of the Patriot Act, which provided the legal authority for the surveillance powers.

Democrats have ripped McConnell for moving to the NSA issue too late. They say he manufactured a crisis that led to the lapse in powers.

The push to end debate divided 2016 presidential candidates.

Paul, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), who is running for the Democratic nomination, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is running for the Republican nomination, voted with Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), James Risch (R-Idaho) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) against ending debate.

But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is also running for president, voted to end debate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who announced his candidacy on Monday, didn't vote.

The "no" votes from Democrats came as a surprise, given the party’s near-united front in support of the legislation in prior votes.

Udall voted against moving forward with the bill “because he opposes the Majority Leader's strategy of allowing only amendments that would weaken the bill,” spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm said in a statement to The Hill.

“The majority leader will not allow amendments that Senator Udall has offered — and others he supports — that would strengthen the USA Freedom Act and better protect Americans' privacy rights,” Talhelm added. “That strategy is contrary to Sen. Udall's position on rules reform and contrary to the majority leader's commitment to allow amendments.”

The White House and House Republicans urged the Senate to approve the USA Freedom Act without amendments. The House overwhelmingly approved the bill weeks ago in a 338-88 vote.

McConnell has framed his changes as “modest safeguards” that would strengthen the bill.

“We need to do what we can to ensure this legislation is as strong as it can be under the circumstances,” the majority leader said Tuesday.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said he would reject all of McConnell's amendments, calling them “poison pills” that could stop the bill’s approval in the House.

The legislation would renew three Patriot Act measures while phasing out the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records — the most controversial program unveiled by former government contractor Edward Snowden two years ago this week.

Amendments from McConnell would impose a requirement on phone companies to tell the government if they planned to change how they keep people’s records, give the NSA one year instead of six months to give up the program and change the role of a new advisory panel on the secretive federal court overseeing intelligence matters.

It remains to be seen whether McConnell has the votes for his amendments. But if he does, the status of the NSA could remain in limbo.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Monday he would support "minor modifications" to the bill, and Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) suggested they would back McConnell's amendments. 

Under Senate rules, senators can debate the bill for an additional 30 hours, with a senator being able to speak for up to an hour. That means if all debate time is used a final vote on the legislation could be delayed until Wednesday. 

But Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, predicted on Monday that senators would be able to finish up their work on the USA Freedom Act by 3 p.m. Tuesday.

--This report was updated at 11:51 a.m.