Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill Tuesday night that would reauthorize a controversial surveillance authority of the Patriot Act until 2020, a push that comes just as a group of bipartisan lawmakers is preparing a last-minute push to rein in the government’s mass-spying powers.
A McConnell aide said the majority leader is beginning a process to put the bill on the Senate calendar but added that the chamber will not take the measure up this week. That process, known as Rule 14, would bypass traditional committee appraisal and “fast-track” the legislation for a full chamber vote. Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr is a cosponsor.
Under the bill, Section 215 of the post-9/11 Patriot Act would be extended until December 31, 2020. The core provision—which the National Security Agency uses to justify its bulk collection of U.S. phone records—is currently due to expire on June 1.
The bill appears to be an attempt to thwart efforts to rein in the NSA’s expansive surveillance powers, which came under intense scrutiny nearly two years ago after the disclosures spurred by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. A bipartisan group of lawmakers was expected to reintroduce on Wednesday a comprehensive surveillance-reform bill that would have effectively ended the NSA’s dragnet of Americans’ call data.
It is possible the bill is being introduced as a backup in case the Senate is unable to agree on a reform bill prior to June 1. But given McConnell’s defense of the intelligence community, that option may be unlikely. The Kentucky Republican led an effort to vote down an NSA-reform package during the lame-duck Senate last year, whipping most of his caucus against the Democratic-backed measure on grounds it could help terrorists kill Americans.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a chief backer of surveillance reform, quickly blasted McConnell’s maneuver and vowed to oppose any bill that reauthorized Section 215 without “meaningful reforms.”
“Republican leaders should be working across the aisle on legislation that protects both our national security and Americans’ privacy rights, but instead they are trying to quietly pass a straight reauthorization of the bulk-collection program that has been proven ineffective and unnecessary,” Leahy said in a statement. “And more, they are attempting to do so without the committee process that the majority leader has promised for important legislation. This tone-deaf attempt to pave the way for five and a half more years of unchecked surveillance will not succeed.”
Privacy advocates also immediately assailed McConnell’s bill.
“The Senate majority leader’s bill makes no attempt to protect Americans’ privacy or reform ongoing NSA surveillance programs that do not provide any tangible benefit to national security,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “For Americans concerned about government intrusion in their lives, the bill is a kick in the stomach.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Harley Geiger’s title.
This story has been updated.