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NSA surveillance reform remains elusive

Since the Senate adjourned in the early hours of Saturday morning without taking steps to extend or reform surveillance methods for the National Security Agency (NSA), there has been little talk publicly about what happens next.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act - the provision that allows the agency to collect the metadata of landline telephone calls is set to expire June 1. The bulk collection program was recently deemed illegal by a federal court, and lawmakers in the House of Representatives crafted the USA Freedom Act.

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That legislation would stop the NSA's bulk collection of phone records, but it would leave the data in the hands of the phone companies and allow the government to request and access the records. The bill passed the House with a robust 338 to 31 bipartisan vote, but the legislation failed in the Senate on a vote of 57 to 42 when senators tried to take up the bill early Saturday morning (60 votes were required). A two-month extension, the path preferred by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also failed on a vote of 45 to 54 - as did efforts to extend the program for even a few days.

The Senate is convening again on May 31, the day before the provision expires. But the House will not meet until June 1, meaning that bulk collection could well cease unless the Senate passes the House version.

And so far, things aren't looking good.

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"What happened this week in the Senate I think was a catastrophe in terms of rejecting a very well thought-out, broadly supported compromise that the Intelligence Committee itself embraces," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday. He said there is a majority of support in the Senate for the compromise, but now, "It looks like the program's going to expire."

"That's the only way to prevent a real interruption in this program," he told host Bob Schieffer.

He's not the only one making that assessment. A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House Judiciary Committee released a statement Saturday accusing the Senate of "jeopardizing Americans' civil liberties and our national security." White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that the only way to ensure there is no lapse in data collection "is to pass the USA Freedom Act."

Section 215 has its defenders, including John Bolton, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Unlike Schiff, he predicted that "some aspect" of the program will be extended. He said there is a lot of "hype and hysteria about this program," which is "compounded by a basic distrust of Barack Obama."

Critics of the bulk collection program argue that it's never successfully stopped a terror plot. Bolton argues that it's rare for a single piece of intelligence to be the linchpin of a case, and that the program is important in concert with other efforts.

The issue has divided potential and declared 2016 candidates, with Republicans Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defend the NSA's methods.

"There is ample evidence that the PATRIOT Act has been a tool to keep us safe -- There is no evidence of anyone's civil liberties being violated because of it," Bush said at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference last week.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has tweeted that she supports the USA Freedom Act passed by the House. Bernie Sanders, Vermont's independent senator who is running for president as a Democrat, opposes the NSA's bulk collection but is waiting to decide whether he will support the proposed reforms. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is a cosponsor of the USA Freedom Act in the Senate.

Rand Paul speaks out against bulk data collection

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, is such an opponent of the NSA's bulk collection methods that he spoke on the Senate floor for more than 10 hours on Wednesday to protest Senate leaders limiting debate on the issue.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is running in 2016, echoed other Republicans who were calling for reforms in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."

"If you have probable go to a judge, you get a warrant, and then you listen in on his calls, because now, you've got the other branch of government that's constitutionally required to be a part of that process," Huckabee said. "You don't just give the executive branch unlimited resources, unlimited power. Our founders were very concerned about too much power being invested in any one, in any branch."

He joined critics in casting doubt upon the efficacy of the program, since it hadn't been tied directly to a foiled terror plot.

"Those have been foiled by old fashion good police work, old fashion human intelligence. It seems like we're spending billions of dollars on whiz-bang technology and not enough money on human resources, which really is proven to be the most effective way of stopping terrorism," he said.

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