How far is too far for NSA? (And what is Congress doing this week?)

June 17, 2013

If last week was about Congress learning more about and responding to the far-reaching telephone- and Internet-tracking programs operated by the National Security Agency, this week will be about introducing more legislation to scale back the programs and restrict information about them.


Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). (Dennis Brack/BLOOMBERG NEWS)

The most notable proposal is set for release Monday by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), two of the most vocal critics of the NSA's programs, who want to limit the scope of the agency's phone-tracking capabilities. Their bill would require intelligence officials to present specific evidence to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of credible threats of terrorism or espionage before collecting an individual's phone records.

Udall said Sunday that he's "skeptical" that the NSA's ability to collect telephone records is effective. "I don’t think collecting millions and millions of Americans’ phone calls … is making us any safer," he told NBC's "Meet the Press." "I think we should have this debate.”

The bill by Wyden and Udall, both members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is just one of several proposals lawmakers are expected to introduce in response to the NSA's actions.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has introduced similar legislation that would require government agencies to obtain a warrant before searching Americans' phone records. And Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is working on a bill that would bar government contractors from accessing or dealing with sensitive information -- a plan designed to stop leakers like Edward Snowden, who gave reporters information about the NSA.

The legislation comes as the NSA is expected to release information this week about several thwarted terrorist attacks that were stopped in part by the agency's phone- and Web-snooping programs.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) suggested Sunday that the revelations will ease the concerns of skeptical Americans.

“If you can see just the number of cases where we’ve actually stopped a plot, I think Americans will come to a different conclusion than all the misleading rhetoric I’ve heard over the last few weeks,” Rogers said on CNN’s “State of the Union."

The scope of the forthcoming debate on the nation's intelligence capabilities is likely to be determined mostly by the information the NSA releases in the coming days. If the agency can provide specific examples of where its work stopped significant threats, then the general public and lawmakers will be less likely to demand a vigorous overhaul or review. But any holes in the NSA's defense probably will keep the issue alive for weeks.

What is the Senate doing this week?

Senators will launch into their second full week of debate over immigration reform with several Democratic and Republican amendments poised for consideration. With dozens of proposals on the docket and both parties sparring over the rules of the debate, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is threatening to keep the Senate open through the remaining weekends in June to complete work on the bill before the Fourth of July recess.

Amendments expected to earn up-or-down votes in the coming days include a plan by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) that would require the Department of Homeland Security to complete construction of 350 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border before eligible immigrants could apply for provisional immigrant status. Another 350 miles of fence would need to be completed before those immigrants could apply for green cards.

Another amendment, sponsored by Paul, would put more responsibility for determining security along the U.S.-Mexico border in the hands of Congress. A plan by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) would require eligible immigrants to be able to read and speak English before earning a green card. A proposal by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) would give protections to immigrants in same-sex relationships. And an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) that would establish strict border security markers is considered a non-starter by Democrats and some Republicans.

And what about the House?

House Republicans plan to hold a vote this week on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks.

The Democratic-controlled Senate would never hold a vote on the bill, but House Republicans keep doing so ever since they retook control of the chamber in 2011.

Franks -- and the GOP's support of the measure -- earned the ire of Democrats and abortion-rights groups last week when he suggested that rape rarely results in pregnancy. The comment came as Republicans fought against an amendment by Democrats that would have added rape and incest exceptions to Franks’s bill.

Despite the objections, GOP leaders quietly added the rape and incest exceptions to the bill late Friday and decided that Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), not Franks, would shepherd the measure to final passage. The decision effectively removes Franks as the public face of the bill and is likely to blunt attempts by Democrats to label the GOP as anti-women.

And finally . . .

Congress will bestow a long-sought honor on Frederick Douglass and the District of Columbia this week by formally dedicating a statue to the so-called father of the civil rights movement.

Lawmakers are scheduled to attend a dedication ceremony Wednesday for a seven-foot bronze statue sculpted by Steven Weitzman of Maryland. The statue depicts Douglass leaning on a lectern and clutching papers in his right hand.

Douglass will be the fourth African American depicted in the Capitol art collection, joining the statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks and busts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. His statue will be displayed in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, which is named in honor of the contributions of the slave laborers who helped build the Capitol and includes 18 other statues.

The Douglass statue is considered a gift from the District and its residents to Congress, but will not be displayed in Statuary Hall, where Congress keeps 100 statues -- two from each of the 50 states. The District was not eligible for the honor because it is not a state.

Follow congressional developments all week long by following Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost | On Instagram: @edatpost | And on Facebook: facebook.com/edokeefe

This item has been updated to correctly spell the name of Steven Weitzman.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Chris Cillizza · June 17, 2013