At the end, senators were fighting over the chance to be the ones filibustering the Patriot Act in Saturday morning’s dramatic session, underscoring just how unpopular the law is and how difficult a time Republican leaders will have in trying to keep it intact as they race an end-of-month deadline.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s gambit to try to use the calendar to force his colleagues to accept a full extension of the Patriot Act failed in the early hours Saturday, leaving all sides predicting three key powers from the law will expire, and preparing to place blame for it come June 1.
“What happened this week in the Senate, I think, was a catastrophe,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told “Face the Nation” on CBS a day after the Senate stalemate. “What happens right now [is that it] looks like this program is going to expire.”
At issue is the NSA’s phone-snooping program, which collects the numbers, dates and durations of phone calls made in the U.S. The Bush and Obama administrations have justified that bulk collection under Section 215 of the Patriot Act — the so-called business records provision — which lets the government demand companies turn over documents on their customers.
Section 215 is slated to expire on June 1, as are expanded powers to go after lone-wolf terrorist actors and to have wiretaps track terror suspects if they switch phones.
The House, in a strikingly bipartisan 338-88 vote, approved a bill, the USA Freedom Act, extending most of the powers, including Section 215, but limiting it so that it cannot be used for bulk collection. In the case of the NSA, the government would have to ask phone companies to store the data, and agents would have to apply for a particular number if they believed it was associated with terrorism.
That bill garnered 57 votes in the Senate — but that fell three shy of the 60 needed to clear a filibuster. Mr. McConnell, who led the filibuster, had hoped that once he blocked the USA Freedom Act, his colleagues would be left with no choice but to extend all of the powers, including bulk collection, lest they expire.
As it turns out, he badly miscalculated.
His own two-month extension earned just 46 votes, leaving it well shy of the 60 needed. And his efforts to pass a one-week extension, a four-day extension, a two-day extension or even a one-day extension to June 2 were all blocked by senators’ objections.
Civil liberties champions even competed to be the ones to object, with Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, at one point deferring to Sen. Martin Heinrich so the New Mexico Democrat could be the one to object to a two-day extension.
“Our forefathers would be aghast,” Mr. Paul said, criticizing Mr. McConnell, his seatmate from Kentucky, for trying to force senators into a take-it-or-leave-it choice.
Mr. Paul was one of a handful of senators who voted against both the USA Freedom Act and the two-month extension, saying he had amendments he wanted debated, and couldn’t abide by Mr. McConnell’s shortened schedule.
Security hawks defend the NSA’s bulk program and said they don’t trust the administration to be able to keep the country safe without the government collecting and storing the data. Mr. McConnell said the phone companies aren’t eager to store the information for the government, and the intelligence community hasn’t convinced him they can bridge the gap.
“This is a high-threat period. We know what is going on overseas. We know what has been tried here at home. Do we really want this law to expire?” Mr. McConnell said.
He sent the Senate home for a Memorial Day vacation, but said he would bring members back on May 31, hoping to strike a deal between now and then.
“We better be ready next Sunday afternoon to prevent the country from being in danger by the total expiration of the program we are all familiar with,” Mr. McConnell said.
With all sides dug in, however, senators didn’t have confidence they’d be able to work something out.
“Make no mistake — it will expire,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat. “We don’t have it together to pass a new law.”
President Obama, who had previously defended the NSA’s bulk snooping, has now embraced changes, and on Friday the White House lashed out at Republican leaders for failing to back the USA Freedom Act or to come up with an acceptable alternative.
“We’ve got people in the United States Senate who are playing chicken with this,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, calling it “grossly irresponsible.”
Mr. Obama could end the program himself, but has refused so far to do so, instead demanding Capitol Hill do it through legislation.
The NSA program has been controversial since even before it was publicly revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper seemed to mislead the country when, in open testimony to Congress, he denied the government was scooping up any kinds of records on millions of Americans.
In the two years since Mr. Snowden revealed the program, repeated reviews have found it to be ineffective. In the latest audit by the Justice Department Inspector General, FBI agents couldn’t point to a single plot that has been foiled thanks to bulk data collection.
But defenders say the information adds context to investigations, and said there haven’t been any intentional abuses, so it’s not violating liberties.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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