McConnell Pushes Republicans to Silence Senate Debate on NSA Reform Bill

The Republican leader said the measure would help ISIS kill Americans.

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
Nov. 18, 2014, 7:45 a.m.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is ask­ing his fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans to block a bill that would cur­tail the gov­ern­ment’s do­mest­ic spy­ing powers. In fact, he doesn’t even want the Sen­ate to talk about the meas­ure.

In a state­ment Tues­day, Mc­Con­nell said he “strongly op­poses” the USA Free­dom Act be­cause it would hamper the U.S.’s abil­ity to com­bat the rising threat of the Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia.

“This is the worst pos­sible time to be ty­ing our hands be­hind our backs. The threat from ISIL is real,” the Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an said in a state­ment, us­ing a dif­fer­ent name to refer to the Is­lam­ic State. “It’s dif­fer­ent from what we’ve faced be­fore. And if we’re go­ing to over­come it—if our aim is to de­grade and des­troy ISIL, as the pres­id­ent has said—then that’s go­ing to re­quire smart policies and firm de­term­in­a­tion.”

Mc­Con­nell is “act­ively whip­ping” his caucus to not al­low the meas­ure sponsored by Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy to ad­vance Tues­day, ac­cord­ing to a Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate aide who fa­vors Leahy’s le­gis­la­tion. The aide sug­ges­ted that Mc­Con­nell pre­ferred sep­ar­ate le­gis­la­tion offered by Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein and Saxby Cham­b­liss, the pan­el’s top Re­pub­lic­an.

The Tues­day vote would open de­bate on the le­gis­la­tion, but it needs 60 votes to clear a fili­buster. With Mc­Con­nell’s op­pos­i­tion, reach­ing that threshold be­comes more dif­fi­cult, and if sup­port­ers can’t get there, law­makers won’t be able to of­fer amend­ments—and the meas­ure likely won’t come up for con­sid­er­a­tion again be­fore the next Con­gress.

On Twit­ter, Leahy, the bill’s chief au­thor, quickly de­rided Mc­Con­nell’s ar­gu­ment as “balder­dash.”

The USA Free­dom Act would ef­fect­ively end the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s bulk col­lec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ phone metadata—the num­bers and time stamps of phone calls but not their ac­tu­al con­tent. The once-secret pro­gram was pub­licly ex­posed by Ed­ward Snowden last sum­mer.

The bill boasts sup­port from the tech in­dustry, pri­vacy and civil-liber­ties ad­voc­ates, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per. But it faces op­pos­i­tion from sev­er­al de­fense hawks, par­tic­u­larly with­in the GOP, and it re­mains un­clear if it has the votes to ad­vance.

Mc­Con­nell’s fel­low Ken­tucki­an, Sen. Rand Paul, said last week he will op­pose the bill be­cause it does not go far enough and would ex­tend por­tions of the post-9/11 USA Pat­ri­ot Act for two years.

Com­pon­ents of the Pat­ri­ot Act, which gives the NSA much of its sur­veil­lance au­thor­ity, is set to ex­pire next sum­mer, cast­ing doubt on how Con­gress will ap­proach the is­sue of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance next year.

Sen. Ted Cruz, one of a few Re­pub­lic­ans who sup­ports the Free­dom Act, would not com­ment dir­ectly on Mc­Con­nell’s ef­forts, or on wheth­er the meas­ure had enough sup­port to move for­ward.

“We’ll see where the votes lie,” the Texas Re­pub­lic­an said.

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