Republican leaders in the Senate may attempt to offer a short-term extension to the expiring surveillance authorities of the Patriot Act, even as they again vow not to take up the issue before first passing legislation on Iran nuclear negotiations and an international trade deal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said his chamber would not address government spying reform or highway infrastructure funding, despite fast-approaching deadlines for both looming at the end of the month, until it cleared the deck on Iran and trade.
But McConnell’s top deputy, Majority Whip John Cornyn, said a shorter reauthorization to the Patriot Act authorities could be in the works.
“That’s one of the possibilities, because we’re going to run into some real time constraints,” Cornyn told reporters, when asked specifically about a short extension.
McConnell last month introduced a fast-track bill that would extend until 2020 the three provisions of the Patriot Act due to expire June 1, including the controversial Section 215, which the National Security Agency uses to justify its bulk collection of U.S. phone records.
It is unclear how long a shorter extension might be, though it would likely be far shorter than the five and a half years favored by McConnell so far. Multiple sources said an extension ranging from four to six months was one option being considered.
But any clean reauthorization still puts the Senate squarely at odds with the House, which is expected to easily pass a comprehensive surveillance-reform bill when it returns from recess next week. That package, the USA Freedom Act, would effectively end the NSA’s call-data dragnet.
McConnell, though, suggested that he was not inclined to take up the House’s Freedom Act as a starting point for Senate negotiations but that his bill would instead be open to amendments.
“Most likely, the outcome is some kind of extension,” McConnell said. “Chairman [Richard] Burr and I consulted and we agreed that the underlying bill will be a simple extension, but it will be open to amendments whenever we’re able to fully turn to it. The question is can we do that between now and Memorial Day, and I can’t tell you right now.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid criticized McConnell for his insistence on trying to negotiate on the trade deal before dealing with deadlines on surveillance and highway funding that are less than three legislative weeks away.
“We’ve been doing a lot of that extension stuff for too long,” Reid said Tuesday. “The wise thing to do would be to pass [the Freedom Act], because I think there are significant votes in the Democratic and Republican caucus in the Senate to do just that.”
Several House members have also indicated that McConnell’s push for a clean reauthorization is dead on arrival in their chamber. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, one of the Freedom Act’s main authors, said last week that such an approach would not have “any chance in the House.”
The standoff between McConnell and Reid also puts the White House in a tricky bind. President Obama and Republicans are in rare agreement over the trade deal, but some liberal Democrats continue to have reservations. But Obama also wants to see Congress pass a package of surveillance reforms—making it difficult for the administration to take a side in this fight.
The lack of a clear path forward may also force Sen. Rand Paul to choose between supporting McConnell, his fellow Kentuckian who has endorsed his White House bid, and helping to block any extension to the Patriot Act—something he has vowed to do in the past. Paul, a vocal critic of NSA spying, has been largely quiet about the surveillance debate since McConnell introduced his extension bill.
“We currently are not providing a statement indicating how the senator will vote, prior to the vote,” a Paul aide said when asked whether he might vote for any Patriot Act extension.
While the Senate’s plans for dealing with the Patriot Act deadline remain in flux, one thing now seems certain: The Senate Judiciary Committee is ceding control over the debate. Chairman Chuck Grassley told National Journal Tuesday that no surveillance bill would go through his panel before the June 1 deadline, in part because so little time remained.
“No. There’s no chance,” Grassley said. “With the [fast track] in the McConnell bill and with the Leahy bill out there, it’s one or the other or some compromise. But it’s too late for committee action.”
Grassley’s deference comes despite his staff being engaged in months of negotiations on the issue. Backers of the Freedom Act had originally hoped they could convince Grassley to cosponsor the legislation, but that ultimately proved a bridge too far.
Other senators indicated talks were still ongoing about finding a way to satisfy both McConnell and the hawkish members of the caucus and the supporters of the Freedom Act.
“There’s some discussion of trying to find a path between the two bills,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent who sits on the Intelligence Committee.
Privacy advocates, however, have warned that they would not tolerate further changes to the Freedom Act, which was already loaded up with a number of national-security provisions in the House in order to make it more palatable to defense hawks. Those provisions are unrelated to mass surveillance and include things like increasing the maximum penalty for providing material support to terrorism from 15 to 20 years.
Many privacy groups, in fact, have already dropped their support for the reform bill, and are instead urging Congress to let Section 215 expire entirely.