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.