Senate Passes NSA Surveillance Reform

Senate Passes NSA Surveillance Reform
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The Senate passed a measure reforming sections of the Patriot Act and ending the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone metadata by a strong bipartisan margin Tuesday, a day and a half after the program expired.

The measure, called the USA Freedom Act, passed 67-32, with more than 20 Republicans joining all but one Democrat, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in voting for the measure. The bill reforms certain provisions of the controversial Patriot Act that expired at midnight Sunday and ends the NSA’s bulk telephone metadata collection, which was exposed in 2013 by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

The program won’t end immediately; the legislation allows six months for the data collection to transfer to telephone and communications companies. The government will then be able to petition to collect that information, which advocates say is a big improvement in protecting civil liberties without diminishing national security.

Opponents of the measure, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, disagree on both counts.

Though a number of Republicans voted for the measure, McConnell made a passionate plea against it. The majority leader, speaking on the Senate floor just before the final vote, told senators the legislation does not enhance privacy and undermines national security.

At one point, McConnell turned away from the desk to directly face his colleagues, raising his voice and citing a CNN poll that said 61 percent of Americans want the NSA data collection renewed.

“If there’s widespread concern out across America about privacy, we’re not picking it up,” McConnell said.

Democratic Leader Harry Reid spoke immediately after McConnell, criticizing the way the Republican leader had handled the Patriot Act situation; the two leaders then traded barbs before moving to vote on the legislation.

The Kentucky senator has been rallying against the measure for weeks, pushing instead for a clean reauthorization of the Patriot Act, a section of which has been used to legally justify the bulk data collection. McConnell was put in a difficult spot two weeks ago, however, when his attempt at a two-month extension failed. Sen. Rand Paul, a thorn in the leadership’s side during the debate, blocked attempts for short-term extensions to prevent the program from lapsing, which it ultimately did Sunday night. Two other, less controversial Patriot Act provisions also expired.

Once the writing was on the wall, McConnell attempted to amend the House-passed bill, claiming that the three changes he proposed would improve legislation he didn’t support. They included extending the transition period from six months to one year; requiring telecommunications companies to give Congress six months notice before changing how they retain data; and a third change dealing with petitions to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.  

House leaders pushed against the Senate changing their bill in any way, which would have forced it back to the House and left the Patriot Act programs expired for even longer. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy Monday and Tuesday told reporters the Senate should pass the bill unchanged, and the authors – Reps. Bob Goodlatte, John Conyers, Jim Sensenbrenner and Jerry Nadler – said the amendments would weaken the House bill and were likely to make the expiration permanent.

All three amendments proposed by McConnell were voted down Tuesday despite only needing a simple majority of 51 votes to pass, with many senators saying the House pressure played a role.

“That was compelling to some,” Sen. Jeff Flake said. “I think there are a lot of us that would have liked to have the Senate amendments on there, although they made a marginal difference, but was it worth another ping pong back in the House? I think a lot of people figured probably not.”

Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the chamber, said he thinks the House would have passed the bill with Senate amendments without issue. The House vote last month was overwhelming, with 338 supporting the measure, and Thune said he the idea that the amendments would have diminished that support “defied logic.”

“Did their assertions that it would have been harder to pass over there help with votes in the Senate? Might have, yeah,” Thune said.  Some who wanted the House bill to pass in the Senate argued the amendments “were going to put it in jeopardy in the House, but I still think at the end of the day they would have passed it," Thune said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who voted against all three amendments but for the Freedom Act, said some of the amendments could be brought back up later as part of other legislation. Republicans threw cold water on that idea, however. Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr told reporters he didn’t think the amendments could come up again. Thune said to try to bring them back to the floor would prove challenging.

“It’s nice to say, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll come back, we’ll make technical questions later,’ but if you think about it, once we act on this issue, it’s going to be very, very difficult to envision how we might come back and make changes later on,” he said.

President Obama released a statement welcoming the passage of the legislation and signed it into law Tuesday night.

“After a needless delay and inexcusable lapse in important national security authorities, my administration will work expeditiously to ensure our national security professionals again have the full set of vital tools they need to continue protecting the country,” Obama said in an earlier statement. 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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