White House Makes Final Lobbying Push to Extend Spy Programs

The Obama administration warned wavering senators that failing to renew spy programs would put the U.S. at risk for a terror attack.

White House officials lobbied the senators in a Situation Room meeting on Thursday to support a House-passed bill known as the USA Freedom Act, as some opponents argued it gives the government too much power to snoop on innocent Americans while others said it may weaken national security.

Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the intelligence committee and an opponent of the bill, portrayed the briefings as a sign the administration lacks enough support for passage. Burr and other senators were working on fallback plans should the bill fail, as provisions of the USA Patriot Act will expire June 1 if Congress doesn’t act.

“I don’t think anybody should be rooting for this to all go away,” Burr told reporters in Washington Thursday. “Clearly with the hard press that’s on between the administration and taking people to the White House Situation Room, they don’t have the votes right now.”

The Senate may vote as soon as Saturday on the House-passed bill, which would prohibit the National Security Agency from collecting bulk records on Americans while extending three expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act. Under the bill, the NSA would have to get a court order to obtain phone records held by telecommunication companies.

Snowden Disclosures

The bill represents the only legislative effort to advance that would restrain U.S. spying two years after former government contractor Edward Snowden began exposing classified surveillance programs.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has set up procedural votes for Saturday on the House bill, H.R. 2048, as well as a two-month extension of the expiring provisions, S. 1357. The bills will need 60 votes to advance.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, told reporters she supports the House bill yet is working on a backup measure in case it doesn’t pass.

“Whether the votes are there I don’t know, and what would happen if it fails, I don’t know,” Feinstein said Thursday. “If it doesn’t pass, that’s another problem.”

Law’s Expiration

Without a final deal, Section 215 of the Patriot Act will expire at 12:01 a.m. on June 1. The government has used the authority to collect records from companies in support of counterterrorism investigations, including details about phone calls. The government also would lose its authority to use roving wiretaps and to search for so-called lone wolf terrorists.

At Thursday’s meeting, the White House said senators and administration officials discussed terrorist threats and the role that intelligence tools play in thwarting plots.

The Obama administration is trying to persuade senators and the public that the U.S. will face considerable security risks and legal uncertainty if the USA Freedom Act isn’t passed by the Senate, especially because the House has gone recessed, three administration officials told reporters Thursday. The officials weren’t authorized to speak on the record.

They said the bill is the only responsible path forward and declined to speculate whether President Barack Obama would support a short-term extension. The administration is uncertain, however, whether the bill has enough support to be passed in the Senate, one of the officials said.

Burr’s Backup

With no final resolution in sight, Republicans who took majority control of the Senate in January are facing their first test on being able to resolve a dispute over national security legislation.

Burr said he will release a backup plan on Friday that will keep in place the NSA’s program for collecting and storing phone records for two years. During that time, the NSA would have to certify it has the technology to search phone records held by the carriers. His plan would also mandate the carriers retain records.

Burr said he hoped the Senate would pass a short-extension to give senators time to consider his proposal.

The administration officials said Burr’s alternative plan is unnecessary. The USA Freedom Act would give the NSA six months to transition to a program in which the carriers hold the data, and it wouldn’t place a mandate on them to maintain records.

U.S. national security agencies have determined that six months is enough time to transition to a program in which the government searches records held by the carriers, the administration officials said.

Full-Court Press

To make their case, supporters of the USA Freedom Act issued public statements, held closed-door lobbying meetings and told lawmakers that their votes could be used against them in campaigns. The House passed the bill in a lopsided 338-88 vote.

The clock has run out, said Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a statement.

“The House has already acted responsibly to reform the expiring provisions by overwhelming passing the USA Freedom Act. They are on their way out of town,” he said. “The Senate can pass the USA Freedom Act, or it can let these provisions expire. At this point, there is no third option.”

Company Lobbying

Technology and Internet companies backing the bill were fanning out across Capitol Hill in last-minute meeting with senators and their aides.

Feinstein said her backup bill would end bulk collection but mandate that telecommunications companies retain phone records for two years. Such a mandate is opposed by many technology and Internet companies.

The Justice Department warned senators it will have to begin shutting down the phone records collection program on Friday.

“After May 22, 2015, the National Security Agency will need to begin taking steps to wind down the bulk telephone metadata program in anticipation of a possible sunset in order to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection or use of the metadata,” the department wrote in a memo released on Wednesday.

Senators also began downplaying the implications of the three Patriot Act provisions expiring for a short time.

“I don’t think it’s problematic for a day or two or a short period of time,” Feinstein said.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said the country would be protected no matter the outcome of the Senate vote.

“I don’t think the intelligence community comes to a screeching halt,” he told reporters. “I think we make use of the powers and capabilities that we have that are fully sanctioned right now under the law.”

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