Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell shocked both parties in Congress by introducing a bill late Tuesday, April 21st to reauthorize a section of the Patriot Act that essentially provides the justification for the NSA spying program on American citizens. The move comes a day before the House Judiciary Committee was to introduce an NSA-reform bill that curtails some of the program’s data-collection measures. McConnell’s bill would extend section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is set to expire June 1st, until 2020. Like the House, the Senate Judiciary Committee has also been working on incremental reform to the NSA provisions. Committee leader, Chuck Grassley (R-IA) would not immediately comment on McConnell’s decision, but he vowed to continue to work on the committee’s current measure.
The bill puts a “fast track” priority on the legislation, bypassing the usual committee process on Senate debate for the issue, which will likely be hotly contested on the Senate floor instead. It also expresses a lack of confidence in the pace of both Houses’ Judiciary Committees’ progress. It has been two years since the revelations of NSA spying were made public by former federal contractor, Edward Snowden. The urgency of the June 1st deadline will likely either alter the agenda of most lawmakers planning to leave for an extended Memorial Day vacation, foster an unexpectedly expedited committee bill in either house, or cause the measure to sunset due to time constraints.
McConnell’s decision appears to alienate almost everybody in either house. Most Democrats have long been against the Patriot Act and NSA spying, and there is growing tension in the GOP between security hawks and libertarians concerned about privacy rights. At the same time, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives cannot be thrilled about their own legislation being undercut by one day. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) objects the bill on several fronts, stating “The problem is if [Republican leaders] jam it in at the end; they don’t give you opportunities for the type of consideration we should have.” Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and longtime defender of the NSA spying program, also expressed her desire to continue with the committee process, saying, “I doubt that straight authorization will succeed, so there needs to be a fallback.” Senator and presidential hopeful, Rand Paul (R-KY), has been one prominent Republican in the Senate who has vowed to end the NSA spying program immediately if elected to the White House.
Despite the widespread opposition to the move, McConnell does have some key defenders in his corner. Although yet to comment publicly, it is likely that President, while expressing his desire in the past to reform the NSA program, would prefer to reauthorize the provision as-is rather than have it expire altogether. Also, Chair of the Senate Intelligence committee, Richard Burr (R-NC), is the bill’s co-sponsor. Another prominent voice on the issue has been South Carolina Republican Senator, Lindsay Graham, who has consistently supported the Patriot Act and its need to for reauthorization. The early expert consensus is that the bill has virtually no chance at passing given the bipartisan coalition against the measure, plus the House of Representatives own internal objections. But, McConnell and his supporters hold very influential positions in Congress and the President may offer his support to the measure as well. It is not outside the realm of possibility that these figures could win support through the negotiating process. If the bill does not pass, however, the question is whether or not there will be some kind of solution before the June 1st deadline to expire the NSA spying program.
National Journal – Dustin Volz and Lauren Fox
Roll Call – Ed Morrissey
WSJ Law Blog – Damon Paletta and Alex Kellogg