The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee floated a compromise Thursday that would end bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency after a two-year transition period, leaving it up to the House to accept the deal or allow expiration of government surveillance powers on June 1st.
The proposal by Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, came as the White House and House leaders from both parties urged the Senate to take up a House-passed bill that would end NSA bulk collection after six months while preserving other surveillance powers set to expire.
“I don’t think anyone in the House wants it to go dead,” he told reporters.
With the Senate expected to vote as soon as Friday, Burr predicted the House bill would fail to break the 60-vote threshold needed to end debate, and he envisioned the same fate for a two-month extension of current law proposed by Senate leaders. He predicted that as a compromise, the leadership will propose that the Senate vote on Friday to extend current law between five days and a month, leaving it up to the House to take or leave the Senate proposal when House members return June 1st.
Earlier Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California appealed for Senate consideration of the USA Freedom Act, which their chamber passed 338-88 last week.
That bill would end the NSA’s collection and storage of domestic calling records after a six-month transition period. But it would preserve the agency’s ability to query phone-company records in search of domestic connections to international terrorists. The House measure also would renew two unrelated surveillance powers commonly used by the FBI to track spies and terrorists.
Burr and other GOP senators worry that six months does not allow time enough for the NSA to make a smooth transition, and believe two years would be better.
“I don’t think this is one of those things where we can take a risk,” Burr said.
But in a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials disputed that view, saying that NSA chief Mike Rogers has endorsed six months as sufficient. They spoke under ground rules that they not be named.
The officials were adamant that if the Senate failed to pass the USA Freedom Act, the phone-records program and other counterterrorism surveillance would be in jeopardy. They noted that a federal appeals court recently ruled that the program was illegal but kept it in place only because Congress was debating changes.
They said that they had been making their case to senators, but they worried that some did not understand “the risk of doing anything other than passing the USA Freedom Act,” as one put it.
“I am very concerned that the American people will be unprotected if this law expires,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in an interview with CBS News.
Heading into a holiday break, the House was set to end its business Thursday afternoon. If senators fail to act, the NSA will begin winding down the phone-records program this week, the Justice Department said.
Both of the unrelated surveillance powers would expire at midnight May 31st, including one making it easier for the FBI to track “lone wolf” terrorism suspects. If that were to happen, FBI Director James Comey said it would set back the bureau at a time when domestic threats are on the rise.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he would allow a vote on the House bill and on his plan for a two-month extension of the current law. Burr’s proposal might result in a third vote.
Pelosi and other Democrats said a two-month extension is unworkable. They pointed out that many House members who voted against the USA Freedom Act vehemently oppose NSA collection of phone records and want the bill to be stronger in its surveillance curbs.
Pelosi said senators “should face reality and come up with a bill.”
Boehner said he saw “a big disconnect” with the Senate on the issue. “I’ve been surprised by it.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the most libertarian-leaning of the major Republican presidential contenders, says the USA Freedom Act is insufficient; he favors letting the NSA surveillance provision expire altogether. Under that scenario, the NSA would not be able to search American phone records in the custody of the phone companies.
Paul dominated the Senate floor for almost 11 hours Wednesday, ending at close to midnight, to decry the NSA phone-records program that was revealed in 2013 by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.
It was unclear how much Paul’s political theater influenced the debate. Nearly every other Republican presidential candidate is on record supporting extending that program, except for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who backs the USA Freedom Act.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Paul said his “No. 1 success would be ending bulk collection of data.” That potentially could leave room for him to get behind the USA Freedom Act.
The FBI wants to keep using a provision that permits the bureau to eavesdrop on “lone wolf” terrorism suspects without having to prove their connection to a foreign power. A second provision allows the FBI to “get a roving wiretap order” when “we encounter a spy or a terrorist who is dropping phones, dropping phones, dropping phones,” Comey said this week.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest called on the Senate to pass the NSA bill before leaving town on their weeklong break for Memorial Day.
“It would be irresponsible to let these authorities lapse for even a few days,” he said.
Earnest said the legislation was “a reasonable compromise” that strikes the right balance between allowing intelligence-gathering and protecting civil liberties.