The Senate cleared a procedural hurdle Tuesday on a bill to reform one of the National Security Agency's most controversial surveillance programs, voting 83-14 to proceed with debate on the House-passed U.S.A. Freedom Act.
The vote offered a tentative indication that lawmakers may be able to bridge their differences this week on a question that brought the chamber to a near-standstill last Sunday: Should the NSA be allowed to continue its mass collection of phone data, should the program be reformed, or should it be dissolved altogether?
The U.S.A. Freedom Act would have extended two of the provisions of the Patriot Act - originally passed in the wake of 9/11 and set to expire Sunday - and would have altered a third, the NSA's phone metadata collection program. After lawmakers failed to come to an agreement on the program before midnight Sunday, all three of the provisions were suspended. A federal judge ruled a few weeks ago that the Patriot Act did not justify the extent of the government's surveillance activities.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, initially pushed for a clean extension of the Patriot Act that would allow the programs to proceed unencumbered. But after that plan was scuttled by bipartisan opposition, McConnell agreed to allow a vote on the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which the House passed on a wide bipartisan vote in May.
When the Senate took a vote on the same bill two weeks ago, they failed to meet clear the 60-vote threshold by 3 votes, with 57 senators voting in favor and 42 voting in opposition. Now that the bill is effectively the only option to reinstate government's metadata collection program, albeit with some changes, many senators who voted no last time are now on board.
The bill, as passed by the House, would strip the responsibility to collect and store phone data from the NSA and give it to the phone companies themselves. The government would still be able to access that data on a case-by-case basis, but it would need a court order to do so.
As the Senate debated the bill last Sunday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul invoked parliamentary procedure to prevent its swift passage, punting the debate into this week. When McConnell then moved to temporarily extend the programs' current authority, Paul blocked that maneuver as well, effectively forcing the government to suspend its data-collection while lawmakers ironed out a compromise.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who has spoken about the need to protect privacy and prevent excessive government surveillance, urged his colleagues on Tuesday to pass the U.S.A Freedom Act, arguing the bill, as written, "carefully balances the important interests that the American people care deeply about."
The Senate will vote on several amendments Tuesday afternoon that would adjust the parameters of the version of the U.S.A. Freedom Act passed by the House.
One amendment would extend the timeframe for transferring data collection responsibilities from the NSA to the phone companies, allowing 12 months for that handover rather than six, as the House bill stipulates. Another would force phone companies to give Congress six months' advance notice if they change the procedures they use to collect and retain data. A third would allow the Director of National Intelligence to sign off on any procedural changes by the phone companies before they go into effect.
"The House's bill is not holy writ. It's not something we have to accept in its entirety without any changes...and I think where the policy debae should go would be toe embrace these amendments," explained Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, during a floor speech on Tuesday. "We sure need to know that the new system would actually work. Doesn't that just make sense?"
Lawmakers who crafted the House bill, though, have warned that they won't accept the Senate's proposed changes, and one top House Republican leader underscored that warning Tuesday.
"I think if the senate changes it, it would bring a real challenge inside the house," House Majority Leader Kevin McCArthy, R-California, told reporters during a briefing. "The best way to make sure America is protected is for the Senate to pass [the U.S.A. Freedom Act]."
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy urged his colleagues to resist the urge to amend the bill, saying any further tinkering "would simply delay passing an excellent piece of legislation."
CBS News' Nancy Cordes contributed to this report.
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