A bill to narrow spy agencies’ power to collect Americans’ electronic data and business records faced an uncertain fate in the Senate on Thursday, even though it passed the US House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a group of defence hawks want to renew provisions of the USA Patriot Act that allowed the bulk collection of Americans’ data, rather than approve a new law that would allow this, the USA Freedom Act passed by the House on Wednesday.
Unless both Houses of Congress approve new legislation before a vacation break at the end of next week, powers used by the National Security Agency and the FBI to gather records for counter-terrorism purposes will expire on June 1.
Administration officials said President Barack Obama is willing to let those powers lapse, although they say intelligence capabilities could be weakened if some kind of surveillance authorities are not extended.
Congressional officials said any proposal to give agencies a broader licence to spy would almost certainly be dead on arrival in the Senate. And McConnell’s proposal to extend current surveillance powers also has little prospect of success, with at least two senators – Democrat Ron Wyden and his fellow Kentucky Republican, Rand Paul, both promising to filibuster the measure in order to stop it.
Senate rules give McConnell almost total discretion to set the agenda in his Republican-controlled chamber. So far he has announced no plan for debate on either the reform bill approved by the House or his own bill to extend existing spy powers.
Senate Democrats insisted they had enough votes needed for the USA Freedom Act to advance in the 100-member Senate. Senator Richard Durbin, the chamber’s number two Democrat, said the bill’s backers had at least 60 votes.
But when asked about the measure’s fate, he said, “Ask Mitch.”
Congressional officials said McConnell was considering a move to allow Senate debate on his own bill next week. A spokesman for McConnell could not confirm this.
Some officials said this could provide proponents of reform of surveillance methods an opportunity to amend the bill to contain provisions identical, or similar to, the legislation approved by the House.
A bipartisan group of reform proponents from the Senate and House said on Thursday the Senate should immediately pass the Freedom Act, which they termed a “carefully crafted compromise that has the support of the intelligence community, technology industry and privacy groups.”