House overwhelmingly passes USA Freedom Act, Senate GOP opposed

The House by a 338-88 vote overwhelmingly approved the USA Freedom Act, which would prevent the NSA from collecting metadata about the phone numbers people dial and when their calls are placed. The bill faces opposition from GOP leaders in the Senate.

The Hill reports, House backs NSA reform, 338-88:

NSA-SpyingForty-seven Republicans and 41 Democrats opposed the bill. [Roll call not yet posted.]

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The politics surrounding the NSA’s surveillance programs are scrambled, and the Senate has just two weeks before the existing law authorizing the NSA’s metadata collection expires.

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While the White House backs the USA Freedom Act, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has led opposition to it in the upper chamber and supports extending Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the collection of metadata, without reforms. [The Second Circuit Court of Appeals last week ruled that Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act does not authorize metadata collection.]

McConnell’s allies include Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the White House hopeful.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another presidential hopeful, backs the Freedom Act, but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposes it. Paul supports allowing the existing law to expire and believes it would be better to not replace it with the Freedom Act.

Supporters of the House bill argue it would impose serious conditions on the NSA’s surveillance programs that would protect privacy.

“I’m not ignorant to the threats we face, but a clean reauthorization would be irresponsible,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who authored the legislation and also wrote the original Patriot Act. “Congress never intended Section 215 to allow bulk collection. That program is illegal and based on a blatant misinterpretation of the law.”

The bill would require the NSA to obtain a court order to look at data held by phone companies. It would also be required to ask for a “specific selection term,” so that records cannot be collected in bulk.

It would place limits on other types of data collection, add new transparency measures to make more information public and create a special team of experts to weigh in on some unique cases before the secretive federal court that oversees intelligence programs.

That’s less than some staunch civil libertarians would have hoped for, however.

Lawmakers such as Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) were blocked from proposing amendments that would have added extra legal protections for people’s emails and expanded the bill to also cover NSA programs sweeping up foreigners’ Internet data, among other areas.

“This bill did not create those problems. However, this bill doesn’t correct those problems,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who supports stronger reforms.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union had also declined to support the legislation, saying that it would offer “incremental improvements” but “does not go nearly far enough.”

Still, many lawmakers believe the legislation is more more palatable than the status quo.

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The bill is similar to legislation the House approved last year in a 303-121 vote. That bill hit a wall in the Senate, however, coming two votes shy of overcoming a filibuster led by Republican leadership.

McConnell has argued the bill would return the nation’s security standards to the days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“Section 215 helped us find the needle in a haystack, but under the USA Freedom Act, there may not be a haystack to look through at all,” McConnell said on the Senate floor last week.

We’re not taking up the House bill,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — who sided with McConnell — echoed on Wednesday.

Passing the USA Freedom Act and allowing the Patriot Act provisions to expire would be “one and the same,” he added, “because when you do away with bulk storage you basically have an unworkable system in real time, and part of this program’s design is it works in real time ahead of the threat.”

It’s far from clear that a clean reauthorization of the Patriot Act would be approved either, however.

Paul and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have threatened to filibuster McConnell’s plans for a “clean” reauthorization of the current law.

The Senate’s decision became more complicated just in recent days, after a federal appeals court ruled that the NSA’s phone records program exceeded the bounds of the law, but declined to shut it down immediately. The decision threw the issue back in Congress’s lap and left real questions about whether the “clean” reauthorization sought by McConnell and other Senate hawks would even be enough to authorize what they want.

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declined to address the differences between House and Senate leaders.

“I’m not going to speculate what the Senate will or will not do,” he told reporters.

“All I know is that these programs expire at the end of this month. They are critically important to keep Americans safe.”

The clock is ticking, Turtle man. The ball is in your court.

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