Senate Set to Vote on USA Freedom ActProcedural Move by Rand Paul Delays Action
The Senate has moved closer to approving the USA Freedom Act, with a vote expected in the coming days on the House-passed legislation to provide for surveillance of Americans' phone records with approval of a court order.
Senate action came as several key provisions of the Patriot Act, including the section of the law the National Security Agency used to justify amassing vast amounts of phone records, expired at 12:01 a.m. June 1.
In a rare Sunday session, the Senate voted 77 to 17 to take up the bill, but a procedural move by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., prevented a vote on the legislation until later this week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., relented in his opposition to the USA Freedom Act, acknowledging he didn't have enough support to temporarily extend the Patriot Act, which he favored. "It's not ideal," McConnell said of the USA Freedom Act, "but along with votes on some modest amendments that attempt to ensure the program can actually work as promised, it's now the only realistic way forward."
Paul, who's running for president, opposes the Patriot Act extension as well as the USA Freedom Act. "Little by little, we've allowed our freedom to slip away," Paul said on the Senate floor.
Ending NSA Bulk Collection
The USA Freedom Act would end bulk collection of phone records of American citizens but would allow intelligence agencies and law enforcement to get a court order to compel phone companies to turn over records. "I think the bill [USA Freedom Act] may be replacing one form of bulk collection with another, but the government after this bill passes will no longer collect your phone records," Paul said. "My concern is that the phone companies still may do the same thing."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, in a statement, said the Senate took an "important - if late - step forward tonight. We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible."
Senate Republican aides told the Associated Press they expect some amendments to be offered when the USA Freedom Act but no major revisions of the bill.
Until Congress enacts the USA Freedom Act, the government will have to employ workarounds to continue some intelligence-gathering programs. For instance, according to The New York Times the Justice Department may invoke a so-called grandfather clause to keep using those powers for investigations that had started before June 1, and there are additional workarounds investigators may use to overcome the lapse in the authorizations.
Congress enacted the Patriot Act in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The Bush and Obama administration used Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify the NSA bulk collection of metadata on Americans' phone calls. A federal appeals court on May 7 deemed the bulk collection illegal but did not order an end to the NSA program because the law was about to expire (see The Implications of Court's NSA Ruling)).