McConnell Introduces Short-Term Reauthorization of Patriot Act

The majority leader’s new legislation would extend NSA mass spying only until July 31.

Caption:WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Republican caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. McConnell spoke on continued problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act during his remarks.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
May 14, 2015, 2:35 p.m.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell on Thursday in­tro­duced fast-track le­gis­la­tion that would ex­tend without changes the ex­pir­ing sur­veil­lance au­thor­it­ies of the Pat­ri­ot Act un­til Ju­ly 31 of this year.

Mc­Con­nell also in­voked the so-called fast-track pro­ced­ure on a re­form meas­ure that passed the House this week. Both bills will be eli­gible for con­sid­er­a­tion on the Sen­ate floor when the cham­ber re­turns next week.

The fast-track man­euvers, which by­pass nor­mal com­mit­tee con­sid­er­a­tion, are be­ing de­ployed be­cause the sur­veil­lance au­thor­it­ies in ques­tion are due to ex­pire June 1 un­less Con­gress acts. Those pro­vi­sions in­clude Sec­tion 215, which the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency uses to jus­ti­fy its bulk col­lec­tion of U.S. phone re­cords—a pro­gram ex­posed pub­licly by Ed­ward Snowden nearly two years ago.

 

The move marks a de­par­ture from Mc­Con­nell’s in­tro­duc­tion last month of a meas­ure that would ex­tend the ex­pir­ing pro­vi­sions un­til Decem­ber 2020.

By in­tro­du­cing a short-term clean reau­thor­iz­a­tion in ad­di­tion to the House-passed re­form meas­ure known as the USA Free­dom Act, Mc­Con­nell may be seek­ing to forge some sort of com­prom­ise between the two meas­ures. The Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an and a group of GOP de­fense hawks have made a force­ful case over the past month that re­forms to the NSA’s sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tions could make Amer­ic­ans more vul­ner­able to ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

But the push also comes as a grow­ing num­ber of sen­at­ors are in­sist­ing that they will op­pose any at­tempt to ex­tend the post-9/11 law’s sur­veil­lance pro­vi­sions due to con­cerns it would buy Mc­Con­nell more lever­age in the de­bate over NSA re­form. With­in the past week, both Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Rand Paul and Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ron Wyden have vowed to fili­buster any clean reau­thor­iz­a­tion.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates have for weeks warned that Mc­Con­nell’s force­ful de­fense of the Pat­ri­ot Act and in­sist­ence on passing a clean re­new­al of the ex­pir­ing pro­vi­sions could be largely in­ten­ded to weak­en the Free­dom Act when it came to the Sen­ate. That bi­par­tis­an re­form meas­ure would ef­fect­ively end the NSA’s phone-re­cords drag­net and passed the House over­whelm­ingly Wed­nes­day.

“This bill is an af­front to the pri­vacy of Amer­ic­ans,” said Neema Guliani, le­gis­lat­ive coun­sel with the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on. “The pub­lic and mem­bers of his own party have spoken loud and clear—they want an end, not ex­ten­sion, of mass sur­veil­lance au­thor­it­ies. Mem­bers of the Sen­ate and House should re­spond swiftly and firmly to block Mc­Con­nell’s bill.”

Mc­Con­nell’s bill in­tro­duc­tions on Thursday now mean there are three pieces of le­gis­la­tion that will be be­fore the Sen­ate next week as it at­tempts to fig­ure out a way for­ward be­fore the June 1 sun­set: the Free­dom Act, a 5-year clean ex­ten­sion, and the bill of­fer­ing a clean ex­ten­sion un­til Ju­ly 31.

Either clean ex­ten­sion likely is still to be an up­hill battle for Mc­Con­nell. On Thursday, Sens. Patrick Leahy and Mike Lee, the au­thors of the Free­dom Act, pledged to not al­low any reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the spy­ing pro­vi­sions through without sig­ni­fic­ant re­form.

“We will not agree to any ex­ten­sion of the NSA’s bulk-col­lec­tion pro­gram, which has already been ruled un­law­ful by the Second Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals,” the two said in a state­ment joined by the House au­thors of the Free­dom Act. “The Sen­ate should not delay re­form again this year.”

The White House this week stated its sup­por­ted the Free­dom Act as a meas­ure that would en­hance civil-liber­ties pro­tec­tions while main­tain­ing tools ne­ces­sary to pro­tect na­tion­al se­cur­ity. The le­gis­la­tion would end the gov­ern­ment’s va­cu­um­ing of U.S. phone metadata—the num­bers, dur­a­tion and time stamp of a call but not its ac­tu­al con­tent—in fa­vor of a sys­tem where phone com­pan­ies would keep the re­cords and turn them over the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials on an as-needed basis over­seen by the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court.

This story has been up­dated.

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