Senate fails to act as federal surveillance authority lapses | St. Louis Public Radio

Senate fails to act as federal surveillance authority lapses

May 31, 2015

Updated 9:30 p.m. May 31 - WASHINGTON- The clock has run out on the government’s authority to collect bulk phone records and other information on Americans. The Senate adjourned Sunday night without approving a measure to either extend the existing law or replace it with a House bill containing what advocates said were reforms designed to address concerns over the bulk collection law, first exposed by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden.

The Senate has scheduled a vote for Tuesday to advance the House-passed USA Freedom Act. The impasse has pitted Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., against the junior senator from his state, Rand Paul. Paul has been a fierce and vocal opponent of the government’s monitoring of phone records.

On Sunday evening, Paul and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., engaged in high-level debate and procedural duals over Senate rules as the two argued their opposing positions.

Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the law lapsed because of McConnell’s governing and management style.

Original article. WASHINGTON - Much like students rushing to meet an end of semester deadline, senators are scheduled to cut-short their week-long break and convene late Sunday afternoon, just eight hours before the federal government’s legal authority to collect bulk phone records and other information on Americans expires.

At issue are two bills, both with names that evoke fundamental American principals: The Patriot Act, approved in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, and the Freedom Act, as it’s been dubbed by those who say it’s time to pull-back on the government’s reach into the private lives of U.S. citizens.

Who can see phone records?
Credit tylerdurden1 | Flickr

Senate Republicans largely support renewal of the Patriot Act in full, even though a federal court in New York has said part of the law is illegal -- what is known as section 215, the provision that allow for the bulk collection of phone records and other information. House Republicans developed the Freedom Act to limit the government’s grasp of those records by leaving them in the possession of phone companies, but accessible with court approval.

The House bill won significant bipartisan support and went to the Senate where it fell three votes short of the 60 necessary to win final approval. A procedural vote to cut off debate on renewing the Patriot Act did worse, gathering only 45 votes for approval. The impasse makes it likely the government’s authority will lapse for several days at least. 

U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., supported renewal of the Patriot Act, and voted against the House-backed USA Freedom Act, while U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., voted for the House bill and against the Patriot Act. Neither bill received the necessary 60 vote threshold.

Unless senators can resolve their differences, the current law will expire at midnight Sunday. Published reports say the White House sent a memo to congressional leaders last week that said the functional deadline is Friday, because the government needs time to shut down the program. 

Emotions and the Patriot Act’s sunset provision

Last Friday, as lawmakers pushed to leave Washington for a Memorial Day break, Durbin recounted on the Senate floor how the Patriot Act grew from the fear and uncertainty of the attacks, but included a “sunset” provision, requiring lawmakers to reconsider and reauthorize it every few years.     

On the morning of the attacks, Durbin was in a meeting just off the floor of the Senate where a television showed the second plane crash into the World Trade Towers in New York. “It was pretty clear at that moment this wasn’t just an accident.” Less than 15 minutes later he said, someone broke into the room and said, "Leave immediately, get out, there’s another plane on the way.”

Lawmakers, staff and tourists ran from the Capitol and stood on the grass wondering what to do next. Because of that experience, Durbin said, “We came together as a nation and passed the Patriot Act, which empowered our government to go further than it had ever gone to keep us safe.” 

Durbin said it was a wise idea to put a “sunset” in the law so that lawmakers would be required to revisit the balance of ensuring the nation’s security and the privacy rights of its citizens away from the emotions of that time. 

Durbin urged his colleagues to support the House approved plan, limiting the government’s ability to collect bulk phone records. “We don’t want to limit it to the point where it endangers us, so we went and asked the professionals, the intelligence agencies and the Department of Justice ‘Is this new version of the law enough to keep America safe,’ and they came back and said 'Yes',” Durbin said.

Under the House plan, Durbin said, the government could “localize” its collection of phone records rather than gather, say, all of the phone records in his mid-Illinois area code of 217. The bill would also leave those records with phone companies, rather than the National Security Agency. The government could access phone records with court approval.

“We’re told by the president, the attorney general, (and) the head of our intelligence agencies, that this is enough authority to keep us safe and not go too far,” said Durbin.