After weeks of tense standoffs marked by the lapse of parts of the Patriot Act, the Senate on Tuesday easily passed comprehensive surveillance reform, ending a chapter of high-stakes brinkmanship on Capitol Hill that eventually concluded with lawmakers taking their first significant step away from the post-9/11 national security policies that have come to define two presidencies.
Lawmakers approved 67-32 the House-passed USA Freedom Act, which would restore the three provisions of the Patriot Act that expired June 1, but also usher in a number of changes designed to better protect privacy and increase transparency of the government’s surveillance operations. It will also transition toward an effective end to the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of U.S. call data.
The measure was swiftly signed by President Obama, who cheered its passage on Twitter.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed in the end to convince his caucus to support him on a last-ditch effort to eke out even a small victory in a contentious, months-long battle over government spying that has left a bruise on his young tenure at the helm of the upper chamber.
The Senate earlier rejected a host of amendments offered by McConnell that were intended to weaken the legislation. Those proposals came only after the majority leader buckled under growing pressure to allow the reform measure—which he initially whipped aggressively against—to go forward.
Before the final vote, McConnell made one last impassioned plea to his colleagues, despite the bill’s victory being clear. Casting blame on Obama, McConnell said the U.S. would be more at risk of terrorist attacks after the bill’s passage.
“While the president has inflexibly clung to campaign promises made in 2008, the threat of al-Qaida has metastasized around the world,” McConnell said. Now was not the time, he said, to “take one more tool away.”
“We’re talking about call-data records,” he added, raising his voice. “Nobody’s civil liberties are being violated here.”
Others disagreed, including a wide-ranging chorus of supporters—tech firms, privacy advocates, civil libertarians, and tea-party activists—who viewed the Freedom Act as a critical step toward restoring rights lost in the rush to protect security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And some, including Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, said the legislation does not go far enough.
The Freedom Act’s passage is the crescendo of nearly two years of start-and-stop bipartisan, bicameral work to pull back the government’s post-9/11 surveillance powers that began shortly after the disclosures by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in June of 2013.
Most notably, the bill would end the NSA’s once-secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify its bulk collection of U.S. call metadata, the first and most controversial of the programs exposed by Snowden. In lieu of that mass-surveillance regime, the Freedom Act calls for a transition within 6 months to a system where phone companies provide records to government spies on an as-needed, more-targeted basis after judicial approval is obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, called the Freedom Act’s passage an “historic moment” that amounted to “the most significant surveillance reform in decades.” The Vermont Democrat has been a main architect of the Freedom Act from the beginning, twice seeing the legislation fail before the Senate before finally seeing it triumph on Tuesday.
Leahy was able to consistently hold virtually all Democrats together behind the reform package, as few wavered from supporting the bill. But though the Freedom Act earned lopsided bipartisan support in the House, Republican votes in the Senate proved incredibly more difficult to find.
Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican and another author of the Freedom Act, engaged in the highest-profile whipping operation of his career Tuesday, pacing on the Senate floor just inches away from the running vote tally with notecards he’d sketched out of those who were with him already and those who might be convinced to join him in voting down McConnell’s amendments.
“I really enjoyed it,” Lee said. “I really enjoyed working with Sen. Leahy and I’m really passionate about this issue. There was no phase of this exercise that was easy, so every single vote that we got we worked really hard for.”
Lee appeared to be a much larger presence on the floor of the Senate during the amendments votes than even Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. The Senate’s No. 2 Republican had been aggressively whipping in favor of McConnell’s attempts to weaken the bill for weeks, but after the first amendment went down on a solid 42-56 margin, Cornyn appeared to take a step back.
“We killed him on that first one and he could see which way it was going, so it diminished after that,” one Senate Republican who opposed the amendments said. “But he has whipped aggressively at every stage of this. I just think he knew he was going to lose.”
“This is only the beginning,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said at a conference after the final vote. “There is a lot more to do.”
The staunch civil-liberties advocate said he hoped to seize the momentum of the Freedom Act’s passage to move quickly on reforming Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is up for renewal in 2017 and involves the monitoring of some content of Internet communications.
Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia, weighed in on the legislation as final votes were underway Tuesday during a live video-stream discussion with Amnesty International UK, calling its changes to Section 215—in addition to a recent federal appeals court decision deeming the NSA program illegal—”not enough.”
“It’s a first step, and it’s an important step,” he added.
McConnell relented earlier this week to allowing the Freedom Act to go forward—but not before he and Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr offered a handful of amendments that they said would make the bill more workable. But those edits immediately prompted stiff resistance from the White House, the House of Representatives, and privacy advocates, who unanimously called on the increasingly isolated majority leader to immediately pass the Freedom Act unchanged.
The writing began to appear on the wall for McConnell’s amendments earlier in the day, as Republican Sen. John Barrasso joined the House GOP’s morning conference meeting to brief them on the Senate’s actions on everything from a must-pass transportation bill to health care. The topic quickly turned to the Freedom Act, however, with House members stating they were not interested in seeing any “poison pill” amendments added to their bill.
According to several members in the room, one of the bill’s original sponsors, Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner—who also authored the original Patriot Act—led the discussion, making it clear that McConnell’s amendments would not be accepted. Even Rep. Peter King, a GOP defense hawk from New York who supports the changes McConnell is trying to make, said it was time to let it go.
The Freedom Act’s passage amounts to the first major loss of McConnell’s six-month stewardship over the Senate as majority leader—a position of power the Kentucky senator has long coveted.
When the taciturn strategist seized the reins of the chamber with the GOP takeover of the Senate after last year’s election, he pledged to move away from the governing-by-crisis model that has gripped Capitol Hill in recent years—but the Patriot Act debate has been defined by a sequence of dramatic standoffs remarkable even by Washington standards.
McConnell was stymied before the Memorial Day recess by Rand Paul, his fellow Republican from Kentucky who is using his stiff opposition to government surveillance as a central plank—and fundraising machine—of his presidential campaign. Paul, along with Democratic Sens. Wyden and Martin Heinrich, blocked efforts by McConnell to extend the Patriot Act deadline even by one day, forcing the Senate to return for a rare Sunday session this week to avoid going over the cliff.
But Paul continued to use the power afforded to one senator to delay votes and force an expiration, while many blamed McConnell for waiting to take up consideration of the Freedom Act until the last minute in order to use the clock to his advantage.
This post has been updated.