The U.S. Senate came back for a rare Sunday session to try to prevent the sunsetting of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, but there was no way they were going to do that. They’d already voted down the USA Freedom Act, which the House passed by a huge margin, and a short-term extension of the provisions. But it looks like they’re going to try again and pass it.
The Senate advanced legislation 77-17 to reform the National Security Agency on Sunday, but parts of the Patriot Act will nonetheless lapse for a few days amid opposition from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
The legislation, called the USA Freedom Act, will not reach President Obama’s desk until after the three measures expire at midnight, meaning that the provisions will expire until the bill is passed by the Senate and signed by Obama later this week.
“The Patriot Act will expire tonight,” Paul declared triumphantly from the Senate floor during a rare Sunday evening vote. “It will only be temporary. They will ultimately get their way.”
Obama has supported the measure and had repeatedly urged lawmakers to support it in the days leading up to Sunday’s deadline. The bill needed 60 votes in order to advance.
The USA Freedom Act would reauthorize Section 215, but with at least one important safeguard. The legislation would forbid the NSA from storing all the cell phone metadata being collected. Instead, the telecoms themselves would hold that data on their own customers. The key, though, is that the NSA would then have to get an individual warrant each time they want to search those databases for a specific person’s metadata. That’s an important safeguard. It doesn’t go nearly far enough, but it’s probably the best we can hope for given how little our elected officials care about the 4th Amendment.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is expected to introduce amendments of his own, which John McCain (R-Ariz.) predicted would be approved.
Paul’s opposition will push votes on both those amendments and the final bill back to Tuesday at the earliest, and potentially Wednesday.
The House would then either need to vote on the new bill or hash out the details in a conference committee.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) — an NSA critic — warned senators against adding amendments to the legislation that could potentially weaken the bill in the eyes of its supporters.
“On the House side there’s not support for a more watered down version of the Freedom Act,” he said. “If they want to get something passed through the House they need to make it better not worse.”
The House passed the USA Freedom Act by a better than 3-1 margin, so it was highly unlikely that they were going to accept a short-term extension of Section 215. That’s what forced the Senate to go back and take another stab at the USA Freedom Act, which they will likely now pass. But if they add amendments the House doesn’t like, it would take a couple weeks or more to work that out in conference committee. In the meantime, the NSA has to shut down all of their data mining operations being justified by Section 215. Indeed, they’ve already shut them down (or so the White House has said).