Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday moved to advance a bill that would usher in sweeping reforms to the government’s most controversial domestic-spying program, more than a year after Edward Snowden’s leaks exposed it publicly.
Reid filed for cloture on the measure late Wednesday, a surprising move intended to address the National Security Agency’s mass-surveillance practices before Republicans take over the Senate next year. To advance further, the legislation would need 60 votes to end debate, and then a majority vote to pass it through the chamber.
The bill, the USA Freedom Act, would effectively end the government’s bulk collection of metadata—the numbers and time stamps of phone calls but not their actual content. Phone companies such as Verizon would instead retain those records, which intelligence agencies could obtain only after being granted approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The bill would also usher in a host of additional privacy and transparency measures, including a more precise definition of what can be considered a surveillance target.
The measure is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, and has earned cosponsors ranging from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz to liberal Sens. Edward Markey and Chuck Schumer. It also boasts support from a wide array of tech companies, privacy and civil-liberties groups, the White House, and senior members of the intelligence community.
The bill is a reworked version of a similar bill that passed the House in May, though that version was accused by privacy advocates and the tech industry of being “watered down” during 11th-hour negotiations.
Leahy spent months working to build consensus around his bill, and he nearly achieved it before debuting the measure in late July. It still faces opposition from some defense hawks, including Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. And two of the loudest critics of NSA spying, Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, have criticized the measure for not going far enough. The two Democrats said they wanted to strengthen the bill to require warrants for “backdoor” searches of Americans’ Internet data that can be incidentally collected during foreign-surveillance hauls.
NSA critics have been waiting the entire year to see Congress come to an agreement on how to curtail the government’s mass-surveillance activities. In January, President Obama pledged in a major policy speech to reform the NSA, but said he could only do so when Congress sent him a bill that closely matched his recommended changes.
Leahy has insisted for weeks that the Senate take up his bill early in the lame duck. “The American people are wondering whether Congress can get anything done,” Leahy said Wednesday night, after Reid filed for cloture. “The answer is yes. Congress can and should take up and pass the bipartisan USA Freedom Act, without delay.”
Reid’s filing was not expected by many surveillance critics, who had thought the lame-duck session was too packed with other legislative agendas to leave any room for NSA reform. But growing uncertainty about where the issue ranked for Republicans may have forced Reid’s hand.
Further complicating negotiations is the June 2015 sunset of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, the law that grants the government much of its legal authority for domestic surveillance. It is widely expected that Congress would not reauthorize the Patriot Act in its current form.
“That sunset could very easily touch off an ugly intra-party battle among both Democrats and Republicans,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Transparency, which supports NSA reform. “Everyone expected it to be ugly.”