- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Senate Democrats took the first steps Wednesday to set a final vote on a bill to halt the NSA’s phone-snooping program, in a move that signals a developing consensus to try to shut the program down before the end of the year.

Democratic leaders set a first test vote for Friday, which would likely be followed by final passage next week — adding yet another major issue to the list of priorities in the short lame-duck session.

Senators will vote on a revamped version of the bill written by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, choosing that option over a more NSA-friendly bill that passed the House earlier this year.

“The American people are wondering whether Congress can get anything done,” Mr. Leahy said in statement. “The answer is yes.”

Under the NSA phone program, revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden, the government collected the numbers, times and durations of phone calls made by Americans. The information was stored for years, so government analysts could use it to try to track down potential terrorist links.

The Obama administration defended the program, saying it had approval of a special secret court and had been run by a small group of members of Congress who oversee intelligence activities. But many other lawmakers felt the program went too far — including Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., author of the 2001 Patriot Act that the government used as legal justification for the program.

“There is no excuse not to pass this fundamental piece of legislation during the lame duck,” said Mr. Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moved to schedule the votes. He had resisted for months as an internal fight brewed within his party between Mr. Leahy on the one hand and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, who had written a more lenient bill that would have let the NSA continue to collect phone records.

But with Democrats’ time in control of the Senate about to end, Mr. Reid acted.

Not everyone is on board with Mr. Leahy’s bill, which bans bulk collection of Americans’ records and requires the government to be more selective when it seeks data.

“I’m not sure what the deal was to bring it up, but I think it’s a terrible piece of legislation and I’m going to be voting against proceeding to it,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican in the intelligence committee.

Sen. Angus King, Maine independent and another member of the intelligence committee, said he wants Mr. Reid to allow for amendments to be offered to try to change the bill on the floor.

“I’m always in favor of bills being brought up but I have some real reservations about the bill,” he said. “I’m going to have to see how it looks in final form. I’m going to be proposing an amendment and how that comes out will probably determine my vote on the bill.”

The bill has spawned odd coalitions spanning party lines.

Its supporters are drawn from the most liberal and conservative members who have found common cause in privacy rights.

If the Senate bill does pass, it will still need to either be passed as-is by the House, or else reconciled with the version that cleared the lower chamber earlier this year.

Privacy advocates said that bill was watered down at the last moment at the request of the Obama administration, causing many lawmakers who were co-sponsors to end up voting against the legislation that bore their name.

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