Republican Leaders Struggle to Unite for U.S. Spy Extension

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) attend the bipartisan signing of the Medicare Access CHIP Reauthorization Act 2015, H.R. 2, press event at the Capitol on April 16, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images

Republicans who hold the U.S. House and Senate majorities haven’t been able to agree on a coordinated strategy for restoring counter-terrorism programs, the latest sign of intra-party discord in Congress.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch 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 National Security Agency’s collection of bulk telephone data. And McConnell was unable to corral fellow Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, whose opposition forced the programs to lapse.

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 in an interview at the Capitol Sunday.

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

‘Different Situations’

“I don’t get the sense that there’s any great personal conflict, but they have very different situations,” Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said of McConnell and Boehner. “Boehner has learned the hard way that he has to accommodate his hard liners and McConnell just got a reminder that he needs to move in their direction, too.”

Senators late Sunday advanced a House-passed bill that would extend the three NSA provisions while curbing the bulk-data collection programs exposed two years ago by former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden.

The measure wasn’t McConnell’s preferred approach. He had proposed extending current programs for five years and also suggested a two-month continuation, yet couldn’t muster the votes needed to advance either measure.

The Senate couldn’t pass the House measure before the 12:01 a.m. Monday deadline because of procedural obstacles raised by Paul, who says the bill doesn’t do enough to limit spying. McConnell and other Republicans also have proposed amendments to the House bill.

Sunday Session

“This is a debate over your right to be left alone,” Paul said on the Senate floor during a rare Sunday session. “I’m not going to take it anymore. I don’t think the American people are going to take it anymore.”

McConnell also tried to move the bill toward a final vote late Monday, but Paul objected again. The majority leader then scheduled the next procedural vote for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday Washington time.

For the first time since soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, intelligence and law enforcement agencies can’t initiate the use of these tools to monitor communications of suspected terrorists or seize records for counter terrorism investigations.

While the Senate is on track to pass the House measure as soon as Tuesday, McConnell is trying to alter it to include what he described Monday as “basic safeguards” to ensure that a new data collection program will “function as its proponents say that it will.”

Burr Amendments

Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, also is proposing amendments. He said the Senate could pass the measure “shortly after lunch tomorrow if everything goes well.”

Paul’s strategy of using procedural obstacles to demand more restraints on NSA spying might ultimately backfire. McConnell, Burr and other Republican leaders have moved to prevent Paul’s amendments from coming to a vote -- apparently in retribution for his actions. Only amendments from McConnell and Burr have been allowed so far. Paul’s spokeswoman, Jillian Lane, declined to comment in an e-mail.

Boehner, meanwhile, is calling for the Senate to clear the House 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 Members

Four other House members -- two Republicans and two Democrats -- said in a joint statement that their chamber is unlikely to back McConnell’s proposed changes and that the Senate should pass the House bill unchanged.

“These amendments only serve to weaken the House-passed bill” and make it more likely the spy provisions won’t be revived, they said. Issuing the statement were House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican; top Judiciary Democrat John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat; and Judiciary members Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.

The NSA is now prohibited from collecting and storing millions of phone records on Americans who aren’t suspected of having links to terrorism.

Even when the Senate acts, the NSA likely will have some of its powers curbed. The House bill would prohibit the NSA from collecting bulk records while renewing the three provisions of the USA Patriot Act that expired Monday.

Roving Wiretaps

Those measures let investigators seize targeted phone, hotel and banking records of suspected terrorists and spies; use roving wiretaps; and use tools to search for lone-wolf terrorists not connected to an organization.

Other government surveillance methods under the Patriot Act are continuing unchanged.

Late Sunday, McConnell introduced a substitute bill that would eliminate a section in the House bill requiring the government to declassify significant decisions and legal interpretations by a secret court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

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

Democrats led by Minority Leader Harry Reid criticized McConnell for not having a plan to renew the law right away, saying it was known since 2011 that the provisions would expire. The legislation to renew the programs represents the first major national security test for Republicans since taking over the Senate in January.

Obama, national security officials and many lawmakers have said the programs are needed in the fight against terrorism.

Court Warrant

The bill would require investigators to get a court warrant and go to telecommunications companies to obtain individual phone records.

McConnell and other Republicans said that arrangement hasn’t been tested and that their amendments would primarily be aimed at ensuring the government can search records held by the companies in a timely manner.

Burr introduced an amendment that would require the government to certify that technology exists to access records held by the carriers. The certification is non-binding.

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

Independent Lawyers

Burr’s proposal also would alter a provision allowing 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.

It remains to be seen how House lawmakers deal with an amended version of the bill. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, urged the Senate to not 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.

The House bill, H.R. 2048, fell three votes short of the 60 needed to advance in the Senate on May 23. On Sunday, it advanced 77-17.

Roving wiretaps let investigators track suspected terrorists who change the devices they use to communicate, without having to get a court warrant for each device. During the lapse of authority, the FBI maintained it would be able to continue using roving wiretaps that were already approved but couldn’t begin new ones, senior Obama administration officials told reporters on May 27.

Two independent panels have concluded that the phone records program hasn’t helped stop terrorist plots, including the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology which was led by form senior national security officials.

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