Senate Advances Bill Renewing Spy Programs With Some Limits

The U.S. Senate is on course to pass legislation that would revive expired anti-terrorism programs with new limits, though any changes would require another House vote before a final version can go to President Barack Obama.

The Senate Tuesday advanced, 83-14, the measure renewing spy programs that lapsed a day earlier. Senators plan to vote on amendments and perhaps on final passage later in the day. Any revisions would require the House to again take up the bill, and the surveillance programs wouldn’t be revived until the two chambers agree.

The bill “proposes major changes to some of our nation’s most fundamental and necessary counterterrorism tools,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “We don’t want to find out that the system doesn’t work in a far more tragic way.”

The House-passed bill’s advancement in the Senate represents a victory for Obama more than a week after Senate Republicans led by McConnell of Kentucky opposed the legislation.

McConnell relented Sunday after other options failed, and he decided instead to try to amend the House measure. McConnell also was stymied by fellow Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, who blocked speedy action because he doesn’t think the bill does enough to limit spying. The events forced the programs to lapse at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Vote Breakdown

Voting to advance the measure were 40 Republicans and 43 Democrats. Those in opposition were 12 Republicans, Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, Tuesday urged the Senate to pass the House bill.

“If the Senate changes it,” that would create difficulty for the House in deciding whether to accept the revisions, McCarthy told reporters Tuesday.

Republican Senator John Cornyn, though, urged fellow senators to support McConnell’s amendments.

“The Senate should not be a rubber stamp for the House,” said Cornyn of Texas. He said the Senate’s posture should be “not capitulation” but “consultation.”

The bill, H.R. 2048, would renew programs allowing investigators to seize targeted phone, hotel and banking records of suspected terrorists and spies; use roving wiretaps to track suspects who use more than one communication device; and use tools to search for lone-wolf terrorists not connected to an organization.

Bulk Records

It would end the National Security Agency’s program of collecting bulk records, including information about phone calls made by millions of Americans who aren’t suspected of having links to terrorism. Instead, the government would develop a new system in which investigators would get court orders to obtain specific records from phone companies.

Obama backs that limit for the NSA. The president and national security officials have said the other programs are needed in the fight against terrorism.

The House bill is the only plan lawmakers have reached to limit NSA spying in the two years since former government contractor Edward Snowden began exposing classified U.S. programs. Friday marks the two-year anniversary of Snowden’s revelations.

McConnell and Senate Intelligence Chairman Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, are proposing to amend the House plan.

McConnell, Boehner

Although McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner both support the three U.S. spy programs that expired Monday, they’ve been at odds over ending the NSA’s collection of bulk telephone data.

Democrats seized on the issue as the latest example of McConnell and Boehner being out of sync though they hold the majority in both chambers.

“Clearly there was no communication between Boehner and McConnell, and they failed to take into account that there were a substantial number of Republicans who disagreed with their leader on this issue,” Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said Sunday.

A similar dynamic played out in February, when a disagreement between House and Senate Republican leaders over whether to attach language blocking Obama’s immigration orders almost halted funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

House Version

Boehner has called for the Senate to clear the House version of the bill -- which passed 338-88 on May 13 -- for Obama’s signature. House Republican leaders haven’t said whether they would accept the changes the Senate is considering.

House Republican Devin Nunes of California, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that if the Senate passed the bill with 77 votes -- enough to override a presidential veto -- that would be enough to convince the House to go along.

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, urged the Senate not to amend the bill.

“Any departure from this carefully crafted compromise will undoubtedly reduce support for it in the House and prolong the expiration of these intelligence tools,” Schiff said in a statement Monday.

‘Basic Safeguards’

McConnell said Monday his proposed revisions were “basic safeguards” to ensure that a new data collection program will “function as its proponents say that it will.”

He proposed eliminating the House bill’s requirement that the government declassify significant decisions and legal interpretations by a secret court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Striking that section may lose support from some lawmakers who have said the court’s operations need to be more transparent.

McConnell and Burr said the proposed mandate that the government get individual phone records from telecommunications companies hasn’t been tested. Burr introduced an amendment requiring the government to certify that technology exists to access records held by the carriers. The certification is non-binding.

The amendment would require companies to notify the government if they decide to hold records for fewer than 18 months. It also would give the government a year to implement the phone records program, rather than six months in the House bill.

Burr’s proposal also wouldn’t require independent lawyers to weigh in on decisions by the secret court that oversees spying under FISA. The amendment would retain a section requiring the government to declassify significant decisions by the court.

Source: Bloomberg