Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill Tuesday night to extend through 2020 a controversial surveillance authority under the Patriot Act.
The move comes as a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both chambers is preparing legislation to scale back the government’s spying powers under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
It puts McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the bill’s co-sponsor, squarely on the side of advocates of the National Security Agency’s continued ability to collect millions of Americans’ phone records each day in the hunt for clues of terrorist activity.
That NSA program was revealed publicly almost two years ago by a former agency contractor, Edward Snowden. The disclosure touched off a global debate over the proper scope of surveillance by U.S. spy agencies and led President Obama to call for an end to the NSA’s collection of the records.
In filing the bill, McConnell and Burr invoked a Senate rule that enabled them to bypass the traditional committee vetting process and take the bill straight to the floor. No date has been set for such consideration.
The move provoked a swift response from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who has been working with other panel members on legislation to end the government’s mass collection of phone and other records for national security purposes.
“Despite overwhelming consensus that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act must end, Senate Republican leaders are proposing to extend that authority without change,” he said in a statement Tuesday night. “This tone deaf attempt to pave the way for five and a half more years of unchecked surveillance will not succeed. I will oppose any reauthorization of Section 215 that does not contain meaningful reforms.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee has been working with Leahy and his colleagues to craft a new version of the Freedom Act, legislation to end bulk record collection that failed to pass the Senate last year.
They may introduce their bill Wednesday. The current Section 215 authority expires on June 1.
It is far from certain that supporters of a “clean” reauthorization have the votes to prevail. Some veteran Hill aides say such a prospect is highly unlikely — especially in the House — given the number of libertarians who have been highly critical of government surveillance powers.
Indeed, McConnell’s move puts him at odds with the candidate he has endorsed for president, Sen. Rand Paul, a fellow Kentucky Republican, who pledged to end the NSA program — which he called “unconstitutional surveillance” — if elected.
Under the program, the NSA gathers from U.S. phone companies phone data, including numbers dialed, call times and dates, but not the content. Following the outcry over the program, the Obama administration added some additional protections such as requiring a judge to approve each phone number before the agency can run a search on it in its database.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.