• Patriot Act Showdown
  • June 2, 2015
  • Law Firm: McDonald Hopkins LLC - Cleveland Office
  • On the list of things Congress had to do before it left for the Memorial Day recess was deal with the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act. The House passed the USA Freedom Act before leaving town, putting the ball squarely in the Senate’s court.

    As of today, the Senate still hasn’t figured out a way forward - and to some on both sides of the aisle that’s just fine. Those who oppose the bill are hoping to simply let it expire before the Senate leaves town.

    It’s possible they will get their wish. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set up procedural votes on two opposing bills that deal with the expiring spy provisions of the Patriot Act.

    McConnell moved to end debate on both the House-passed USA Freedom Act, which would end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. call records, and a two-month "clean" extension to the Patriot Act's provisions, which he and other Republican defense hawks favor.

    The decision follows a 10-and-a-half-hour self-declared "filibuster" by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that railed against the NSA's sweeping surveillance powers. The Senate is staring down a June 1 expiration of three Patriot Act provisions, including Section 215, which the NSA uses to justify its bulk collection regime.

    It now appears that the Senate will hold rare weekend votes, unless somehow unanimous consent can be gained to move ahead more quickly. Absent that, the earliest either measure could advance would be on Saturday.

    In the meantime, the Obama administration said the NSA must begin winding down its dragnet program today so operations are shut down by the expiration date. The White House on Thursday called on the Senate to pass the House bill.

    While the White House's main objective in recent weeks has been passage of the trade bill, the administration appears to be reaching out on the USA Freedom Act. Senior administration officials met with a small bipartisan group of senators in the situation room Thursday as part of what a White House aide described as a "regular congressional engagement on the USA Freedom Act" to discuss the bill and related national security issues.

    Still, it is unclear if the USA Freedom Act has the magical 60 votes right now.

    The Senate could also pass a short-term extension—whether two weeks or two months—of the Patriot Act. McConnell has invoked cloture on a two-month extension, but there have been rumblings that the upper chamber could amend that to a shorter duration of maybe a couple of weeks in an effort to make it more palatable to the House. Such an effort would be procedurally tricky, and would require the out-of-town House to agree to it next week under unanimous consent during its pro forma session.

    Senators from both parties continue to doubt whether this option has enough support.

    If the Senate doesn't manage to pass the USA Freedom Act on Saturday, it is likely that the sections of the Patriot Act the NSA uses to sanction bulk surveillance will lapse.