- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

President Obama on Tuesday blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for failing to save key Patriot Act provisions that are set to expire in less than a week, isolating the Kentucky Republican while firmly aligning himself with those seeking to curb some government snooping powers.

The president called on the Senate to scrap its weeklong Memorial Day recess, return to Washington and immediately resume work on legislation that would extend much of the Patriot Act but also would eliminate the government’s collection of bulk phone data. The bill already has passed the House with bipartisan support but came up three votes short the 60 needed to clear the Senate last week.

Mr. McConnell had been pushing a blanket extension of the Patriot Act, but his efforts failed during a late-night Senate session that lasted into early morning last Saturday.

The congressional stalemate led the president to go on the offensive Tuesday against Republican leaders in Congress.

“The House of Representatives did its work and came up with what they’ve called the USA Freedom Act … The Senate did not act. And the problem we have now is those authorities run out at midnight on Sunday. So, I strongly urge the Senate to work through this recess and make sure they identify a way to get this done,” Mr. Obama said after a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “Keep in mind that the most controversial provision in there, which had to do with the gathering of telephone exchanges in a single government database, that has been reformed in the USA Freedom Act.”

The president added that the American people will be less safe if Patriot Act provisions expire.

Later in the day, White House officials specifically singled out Mr. McConnell, placing the responsibility to pass a bill squarely on his shoulders.

“Certainly Sen. McConnell understands the stakes here, and that’s why we’re hopeful Sen. McConnell, being very cognizant of the environment our national security professionals are operating in, will take the necessary steps to help the Senate pass the USA Freedom Act,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

Mr. McConnell’s office said the Senate will come back to Washington on Sunday, before the Patriot Act provisions expire, and that lawmakers are working on a path forward.

“Last week he scheduled the Senate to come back a day early (Sunday). We had a vote on proceeding to the House bill but it didn’t clear. Members are working on solutions,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said.

The situation has presented a tough political challenge for Mr. McConnell, who last Friday tried to force the Senate to accept a full extension of the Patriot Act. He wagered that the chamber, unwilling to allow key aspects of the bill to expire, would accept his extension before leaving for recess.

But lawmakers in both parties bucked the leader and refused to accept even a short-term extension. They instead moved ahead with a vote on the USA Freedom Act, which would preserve most of the Patriot Act while making key changes to Section 215, the portion allowing the government to collect and store bulk phone records.

Under the revisions, the government would have to ask phone companies to store the data and then query records associated with a particular phone number if they believed it was linked to terrorism.

The bill garnered 57 votes in the Senate — three short of the 60 needed to proceed.

Mr. Obama now has become one of the most outspoken supporters of the proposed changes, but Mr. McConnell argues the administration simply can’t be trusted on the issue.

On the Senate floor last Friday night, he laid out his specific objections to the USA Freedom Act, including that phone companies would not be legally required to store records. Some companies already have indicated they won’t keep the records.

“Unfortunately, there is now a huge gap between the capabilities the president rightly recognized as being necessary for our intelligence professionals, and the legislation he’s endorsing today,” he said. “The untried — and as of yet, non-existent — bulk-collection system envisioned under that bill would be slower and more cumbersome than the one that currently helps keep us safe. At worst, it might not work at all due to, among many other problems, the lack of a requirement for telecommunications providers retain the data to begin with … This is beyond troubling. We should not establish an alternate system that contains a glaring hole in its ability to function, namely the complete absence of any requirement for data retention.”

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