Senate barreling toward surveillance standoff

Senate barreling toward surveillance standoff
© Greg Nash

The Senate isn't getting any closer to reforming the nation's spying laws or reauthorizing expiring portions of the Patriot Act with fewer than three legislative weeks left for lawmakers to do so.

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On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi, Schumer press for gun screenings as Trump inches away The malware election: Returning to paper ballots only way to prevent hacking First House Republican backs bill banning assault weapons MORE (R-Ky.) would not pledge to take up legislation called the USA Freedom Act, which is expected to gain broad support in the House next week.

“We’re going to try to do something to avoid expiration at the end of the month,” he told reporters. “Exactly how that plays out will be determined in part by how much time is left to achieve [a deal].”

Instead, McConnell indicated that the starting point for his chamber would be legislation he and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) introduced to make a "clean" extension of the existing law for five years, which he would open up for amendments.

“I think, most likely, the outcome is some kind of an extension,” he said. “Chairman Burr and I consulted and we agreed that the underlying bill would be a simple extension but it would be open for amendment, whenever we are able to fully turn to it.”

“The question is whether we can do all of that between now and Memorial Day, and I can’t tell you right now," he added. 

The lack of certainty about a path forward could lead to a heightened standoff as lawmakers approach a June 1 deadline to extend or reform the Patriot Act. With members of both parties pledging to oppose a "clean" reauthorization of the law, it seems unlikely Republican leaders would be able to get the 60 votes they need to avoid a filibuster on the bill.

Instead, that might open the door to a shorter-term reauthorization of the bill, acknowledged Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Democrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape MORE (Texas), the chamber's No. 2 GOP lawmaker.

“I think that’s one of the possibilities,” he said, “because we're going to run into some real time constraints.”

On June 1, three provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire, including the controversial measure that the National Security Agency (NSA) has used to collect records about millions of people's phone calls without a warrant. The records do not include the content of people’s conversations, but instead comprise “metadata” such as the numbers involved in a phone call and when the call occurred.

The Senate has a packed schedule between now and the end of the month. In addition to the Patriot Act bill, lawmakers are also eyeing legislation on the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran, "fast-track" trade approval and the Highway Trust Fund. 

Civil libertarians have focused on the June 1 deadline as their best chance to rein in what they consider to be invasive government surveillance.

But defenders of the NSA — including Republican leadership — say that allowing the provisions to expire would effectively handicap a crucial arm of America’s national security.

In the House, lawmakers next week are scheduled to vote on the USA Freedom Act, which would effectively end the NSA’s bulk phone records program by forcing the agency to request the records from private companies after obtaining a court order. The measure would also limit other types of NSA surveillance while adding new transparency measures and placing a new expert panel on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees requests for surveillance warrants against suspects inside the U.S. by federal law enforcement agencies.

The legislation was carefully crafted in negotiations between hawks and civil libertarians. While it does not go as far as many NSA critics would like, it also makes changes that agency defenders would rather not implement.

As a result, it is expected to be passed on a bipartisan basis when the lower chamber returns to Washington next week, following a 25-2 vote out of the Judiciary Committee. 

The bill was introduced in the Senate but has yet to show signs of gaining traction.

Instead, some lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee have begun working behind the scenes to meld that legislation — a similar version of which came two votes shy of overcoming a Senate filibuster last year — with the “clean” bill from McConnell and Burr.

“There’s some discussion of trying to find a path between the two bills,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Intelligence panel.

But with two and a half weeks to go, those talks have yet to produce any legislation.