The Senate will vote on legislation that ends the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of millions of Americans’ phone records as Congress scrambles to renew the Patriot Act before it expires on June 1.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has opposed the House bill to reauthorize the post-Sept. 11 law while significantly changing the NSA’s bulk collection, preferring to simply renew the Patriot Act. But he told reporters Tuesday that he will allow a vote on the measure that passed the House overwhelmingly last week and has the backing of the Obama administration.
“Regardless of what the House’s position may be, we have an obligation to deal with the Patriot Act,” the Kentucky Republican said. “And we’re going to deal with it this week. And it’s my view that letting it expire is not a responsible thing to do.”
Congress must deal with the law’s fate before lawmakers leave town for the weeklong Memorial Day recess. The issue has divided Republicans and Democrats, cutting across party lines and pitting civil libertarians concerned about privacy against more hawkish lawmakers fearful about losing tools to combat terrorism.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA program spurred some Republicans and Democrats to demand an end to the bulk collection.
Last week, the House backed the USA Freedom Act, which would replace bulk collection with a system to search the data held by telephone companies on a case-by-case basis. The vote was 338-88, and House Republican and Democratic leaders have insisted on their bill.
“The House had an overwhelmingly large vote for the USA Freedom Act. It’s time for the Senate to act,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters on Tuesday.
The law expires in less than two weeks. If Congress fails to act, several key provisions would expire, including the bulk collection; a provision allowing so-called roving wiretaps, which the FBI uses for criminals who frequently switch cellphones, and a third that makes it easier to obtain a warrant to target a “lone wolf” terror suspect who has no provable links to a terrorist organization.
“Everything stops. It’ll just go out of being,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence committee, said of the implication of the law’s expiration.
McConnell made no predictions about the outcome of the Senate vote on the House measure.
“If there are not enough votes to pass that, then we need to look at an alternative,” he said.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said Congress must act by June 1 and the only option is for the Senate to pass the House bill and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Earnest said the House bill protects “the authorities of our national security professionals, while also protecting the civil liberties of the American people.”