- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he would schedule a vote this week on a rewrite of the Patriot Act, setting up a final showdown on the NSA’s bulk-data programs and putting pressure on civil liberties advocates to muster the 60 votes needed to end the snooping.

Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, is hoping those advocates fall short and that senators will have to accept a short-term extension of the existing Patriot Act, which would officially authorize the National Security Agency’s program and undercut a court ruling last week that found the phone-snooping illegal.

But a key House Democrat said he doubts there is enough support for even a two-month extension in his chamber, leaving Mr. McConnell struggling to find a way out of the jam.

“We’ll find out where the votes are,” Mr. McConnell told reporters. “What I think is the most important thing is to make sure we still have a program, a program that works, and helps protect the American people from attacks. That’s the bottom line here. And we’re going to work toward addressing that this week, and we’ll see how it turns out.”

He and a cadre of Senate Republicans are fighting a rearguard action in trying to protect the NSA phone-snooping program, which President Obama, intelligence community leaders and an overwhelming majority of the House have said should be ended.

The issue has ignited a bitter fight within the Republican Party.

Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, tried to force a vote Tuesday, but Sen. Tom Cotton blocked him — though the Arkansas Republican voted last year for a similar version when he was in the House.

Congress is racing an end-of-month deadline to either renew three key powers from the Patriot Act or let them expire. Among those powers are the ability to better target lone-wolf terrorists and to demand that businesses turn over records at the request of the government.

The Bush and Obama administrations have used that second provision to demand that phone companies turn over the metadata — numbers, dates and durations — of all Americans’ calls, which are then stored and scoured when investigators believe they have a phone number related to a terrorism investigation. The calls’ contents are not stored as part of the program.

Former government contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the NSA program, sparking a feverish debate.

Mr. Obama has called for Congress to make changes, even though he could end the program unilaterally.

Republican backers of the NSA program say that is proof that Mr. Obama secretly wants the snooping to continue, though he lacks the political will to make the case for it.

The House, on a 338-88 vote, has cleared a bill that would ban bulk collection of data and end the NSA program.

That bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, has strong support in the Senate — though it’s unclear whether it has the 60 votes needed to survive a filibuster that Mr. McConnell and his allies would lead.

Mr. McConnell wanted a full five-year extension of the snooping powers, but that has far less support. Instead, he is likely to pursue a two-month extension in an attempt to buy time.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters Tuesday that Mr. McConnell’s plan probably not would pass muster in the House and that Republican leaders in the House were insistent that senators take up the USA Freedom Act.

“The House had an overwhelmingly large vote for the USA Freedom Act. It’s time for the Senate to act,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

Complicating matters is a federal appeals court decision last week that found Congress didn’t envision the NSA’s snooping program when it passed the Patriot Act. The judges in that decision said the program was secret at the time the Patriot Act was last debated, so the Bush and Obama administrations were stretching the law to say it covered bulk collection.

If Congress approves an extension, even for a short period, it would undercut that court’s argument, legal analysts say, and could put the snooping program on firmer legal footing.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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