Senate Plans Vote on House-Passed Bill Curbing NSA Spying

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The Senate will vote this week on a bill passed by the House prohibiting the National Security Agency from collecting bulk records, yet renewing U.S. spy programs set to expire in two weeks, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

McConnell has faced mounting pressure from Democrats and companies such as Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. to allow a vote on legislation that curbs some of the NSA’s spying powers revealed in 2013 by former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden.

It was unclear if the House-backed bill has enough votes to pass the Senate. McConnell and Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, told reporters Tuesday they were seeking a backup plan, which could include trying to pass a temporary one-month extension. Democrats said they oppose a short-term action.

Three provisions of the USA Patriot Act expire on June 1, including the power to access millions of phone call records in order to find suspected terrorists. McConnell and other lawmakers have said it would be dangerous if the authorities lapsed for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

“We have a way to solve this right now,” Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview in Washington. “Do what the House did. They reflected the will of the American people. Republican and Democrats came together on an overwhelming bipartisan vote.”

The House bill, called the USA Freedom Act, passed on May 13 by a lopsided 338-88 vote.

Paul’s Vow

Republican leaders will have to overcome procedural obstacles from within their own party, as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said he’ll try to prevent renewing the surveillance powers.

While Paul, who is seeking the 2016 Republican nomination for president, can attempt to hold up the bill with an extended floor debate, McConnell can end the effort by collecting 60 votes to move forward.

McConnell’s decision on the House bill is a reversal from previous efforts to prevent the legislation from coming before the Senate. He led opposition to a similar measure in December when his party was in the minority.

It would be “a bad outcome” if the authorities expired under Republicans, who took control of the House and Senate in January, Thune said.

McConnell and Thune may be counting on the House bill failing to get 60 Senate votes to advance. Democrats would then either have to support a temporary extension or allow the authorities to expire.

‘Missed Opportunity’

“I hope that, if we put the House bill up over here and it doesn’t get to 60, that we then pivot to a short-term extension that would allow us additional time to work this out,” Thune said in an interview. “The House is in a very different place right now than where I think a majority of Senate Republicans are.”

A temporary extension “would be a missed opportunity,” Google, Facebook, Yahoo! Inc. and seven other Internet companies said in a letter to all senators Tuesday. The companies, which formed the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, have made passing the bill one of their top legislative priorities.

They’re facing a backlash over revelations that the U.S. collects data about their users and are trying to assure domestic and international customers that they stand up to excessive government spying.

“Our companies came together two years ago to push for essential reforms that are necessary to protect national security, strengthen civil liberties, reaffirm user trust in the Internet, and promote innovation,” they wrote. “The Senate can begin delivering on those reforms by passing the USA Freedom Act.”

(A previous version of this story corrected the state of John Thune.)

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