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Mitch McConnell gooses Capitol Hill debate on NSA surveillance

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.)  prepare to speak to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on March 10 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The appearances could hardly be more eyebrow-raising: Late Tuesday, with the Senate still in session after 9 p.m. trying to hash out a series of upcoming votes on closely watched anti-sex-trafficking legislation, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) paved the way for action on a five-year renewal of the federal government's ability to collect phone data on a massive scale — one of the most controversial programs revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The debate over daily collections of Americans' phone records — lauded by supporters as a vital element of national defense against terrorism, decried by critics as an overbroad dragnet that eviscerates personal privacy — has stayed mainly in the background on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have been working mainly behind closed doors thus far to rework the legal authorization for the phone program ahead of its expiration June 1.

McConnell's late-night move, done with the support of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), now puts NSA surveillance on Congress's front burner, and Burr said Wednesday that that was exactly the point.

[McConnell introduces bill to extend NSA surveillance]

"This is to help stimulate our members beginning to look at the issue, to understand what this program is and more importantly understand its importance in our overall defense of the country," Burr told reporters in the Capitol. "I think it's safe to say there will probably be a few additional reforms. But what the straight reauthorization does is [it] creates the fence that the debate is going to happen within."

The "straight reauthorization" offered by Burr and McConnell — renewing current law, as originally passed in the post-9/11 Patriot Act, without any new strictures — offers one end of that fence. On the other, Burr said, are the proposals that have been put forth by reformers such as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is putting the finishing touches on a reform-minded reauthorization bill.

"I can't tell you what the point is that we're going to end," Burr said, "but it's somewhere between Leahy and Goodlatte and" his own bill.

McConnell's move Tuesday puts the surveillance authorization on the Senate's fast track, giving him authority to more easily put the issue before the full Senate without consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That panel's chairman, Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), demurred Tuesday when asked about his intentions of moving forward with a reform bill.

"This is something that is going to take a lot of people to get together and find the proper balance of rights and national security," Grassley said.

By fast-tracking the reauthorization bill, McConnell also appears determined to avoid a last-minute standoff that could threaten to end the bulk surveillance program — one that McConnell himself has said is vital to the nation's security.

Last year, a reform bill known as the USA Freedom Act failed to clear the Senate when it was still under Democratic control. That bill had the support of a few Republican senators but was opposed by key players such as McConnell, Burr and Grassley.

[Senate fails to advance legislation on NSA reform]

It did have the support of President Obama, and so far in this Congress, few seem quite sure of what he wants out of a new reform bill or whether he would support a reauthorization that maintains most or all of the current intelligence-gathering powers. After the Snowden revelations, Obama did issue executive orders scaling back the bulk collection of phone data.

"The White House usually keeps everything close to the vest until all of a sudden you produce a piece of legislation, and then they're open to share with you their problems with it," Burr said. "Their shoulder at the wheel might help, actually."

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