Republicans May Offer Short-Term Extension of Patriot Act

A standoff over overhauling the NSA’s surveillance authorities is getting wrapped up in a broader Senate fight about Iran, highway funding, and an international trade deal.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (2nd L) speaks as (L-R) Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Sen. John Thune (R-SD), and Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) listen during a news briefing after the weekly Senate Republican Policy Luncheon February 24, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Senate Republicans held its weekly luncheon to discuss GOP agenda.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
May 5, 2015, 12:27 p.m.

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.

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