Congress closes in on deal to renew Patriot Act provisions

Congress closes in on deal to renew Patriot Act provisions

Members of Congress are starting to coalesce around a bipartisan plan that would scale back government surveillance while renewing portions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire in May.

While the legislation, which could be unveiled as soon as this week, could fall short of more expansive proposals for curbing the National Security Agency, sources say it could include the most significant reforms of intelligence practices in years.

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“I think there’s a good chance that we’ll be able to get something,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee who is a vocal critic of government spying.

“I don’t want to say much more, but I think the agreement may come together fairly soon.”

The House and Senate Judiciary committees have jurisdiction over the law, and the negotiations have largely occurred between those panels’ four leaders: Sens. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleySenate antitrust bill has serious ramifications for consumers and small businesses Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two Senate Judiciary Committee to debate key antitrust bill MORE (R-Iowa) and Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyFormer US attorney considering Senate run in Vermont as Republican The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sen. Kaine, drivers stranded in I-95 backup Senate delays vote as DC hit by snowstorm MORE (D-Vt.) and Reps. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteFight breaks out between Jordan, Nadler over rules about showing video at Garland hearing The job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line MORE (R-Va.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). The talks have also included lawmakers who were involved in the issue last year, including Rep. Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerProtecting the fundamental right of all Americans to have access to the voting booth Republicans compare Ron Johnson to Joe McCarthy: NYT GOP puts pressure on Pelosi over Swalwell MORE (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act.

According to people involved in the discussions, the plan would largely mirror last year’s failed effort to end the NSA’s bulk collection of millions of Americans’ phone records.

A modified version of that bill passed the House last year without the support of the chamber’s strongest NSA critics. Reformers said the bill had been watered down before it hit the floor.

Leahy’s stronger Senate version of the legislation, meanwhile, fell two votes shy of overcoming a Republican-led filibuster.

Multiple advocates of NSA reform told The Hill they are optimistic that the latest bill would provide a greater check on U.S. spying powers, nearly two years after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked explosive information about the NSA’s activities.

“It is definitely stronger than the House product,” said one congressional aide working on the issue.

The bill is “comparable to the House-passed and Leahy versions from last Congress, and it ends bulk collection,” a second staffer said.

On June 1, three portions of the Patriot Act are set to expire, including the controversial Section 215, which allows the government to collect “any tangible things” as part of a terrorism investigation. The NSA has used the authority to collect bulk “metadata” about Americans’ phone calls, such as the phone numbers involved in a call and when the call occurred. The content of conversations is not collected.

Like previous efforts, the new version of the USA Freedom Act would effectively end the metadata program by requiring the NSA to obtain a court order before searching through records held by private phone companies, people involved in the negotiations said.

The plan would reform the secretive court that oversees U.S. intelligence activities by adding a panel that would provide an alternate voice to the government. It would also allow tech and telecom companies to disclose more details about the records they hand over to federal authorities.

While optimism is growing about the bill, the authors of the legislation are walking a tightrope as they seek to change the NSA without alienating lawmakers on either side of the surveillance debate.

Civil liberties advocates in both parties have rejected the notion of renewing the Patriot Act provisions in their current form. They have said they would rather see them expire on June 1 than extend them without change. 

“I don’t think there are the votes in the House for a straight reauthorization,” said Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden to make voting rights play in Atlanta Democrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Overnight Health Care — Insurance will soon cover COVID-19 tests MORE (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee and a supporter of reforms.

More hawkish lawmakers, on the other hand, have been unwilling to gut the surveillance program or allow it to die, which intelligence officials say would leave them partially blind to the threats posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups.

“This is a section to protect American citizens from outsiders,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters earlier this week. “I want to have the capabilities to protect us, and at the some time, protect our civil liberties.”

McCarthy has said the full House “may consider” a Patriot Act bill as early as this month. 

The details of any agreement will be important for both critics and supporters of the NSA. Civil libertarians have accused the intelligence community of rushing to exploit any legal loophole it can find, while boosters of the agency will want to ensure U.S. officials can get the information they seek.

The failure of last year’s legislation had sparked concerns among reformers that Congress would pass merely superficial changes to the NSA as part of a speedy reauthorization process. But the willingness of some lawmakers to allow the Patriot Act authority to expire has put congressional leaders in a bind.  

“They can either have a fight about sunset, or they can take a very reasonable compromise bill,” one congressional aide said. “Those are the only two choices.”

Last month, Reps. Mark PocanMark William PocanDemocrats livid over GOP's COVID-19 attacks on Biden With Build Back Better, Dems aim to correct messaging missteps Dems brace for score on massive Biden bill MORE (D-Wis.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) unveiled legislation to repeal the Patriot Act as well as the 2008 FISA Amendments Act. Ten lawmakers have since signed on as co-sponsors. 

While that legislation is unlikely to move forward, it highlights how a weak reform bill could face opposition from the libertarian wing of the GOP.

On Tuesday, the House Intelligence Committee began briefing lawmakers about the details of the Patriot Act, in what Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) called “an educational process of how the three expiring provisions actually work and function in the intelligence community.”

Nunes said he would support a straight reauthorization, which he predicted should be able to pass Congress.

“I’m not sure that’s where we end up ultimately,” he added.

Scott Wong contributed.