One of two lead sponsors of a measure that would strip the National Security Agency of its authority to collect and mine Americans’ phone records will oppose any amendments to the bill.
In an interview Tuesday morning, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said he would not support any proposed changes to the House-passed USA Freedom Act, any of which could delay final passage for several more days.
“I’m going to oppose them, and I know there are a number of others who will be doing so as well,” Lee said. “I’ll be opposing them first and foremost because, now that the provisions at issue have expired, any changes we make to the House-passed bill will draw out the period of time in which the provisions will remain expired.”
The bill, which is also backed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would extend three Patriot Act provisions and phase out the NSA’s collection of phone records. Under the Lee-Leahy bill, the NSA would be required to seek a court’s permission to examine phone records maintained by telecommunications companies.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday called on fellow senators to add amendments that would extend provisions in the Patriot Act allowing the NSA to mine metadata until a new system can be created and verified by the Director of National Intelligence. On Tuesday, the Senate voted to end debate on the USA Freedom Act, though the possibility of adding new amendments is still on the table.
“We should take some common-sense steps to ensure the new system envisioned by [the USA Freedom Act] — a system we would soon have to rely upon to keep our country safe — will, in fact, work,” McConnell said in a statement.
McConnell has also offered amendments that would require telecom firms to alert the federal government if they make changes to the way they keep individual records.
The debate over the NSA’s authority has divided the Senate Republican Conference. A handful of members, led by McConnell and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), want to extend the Patriot Act’s original provisions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) blocked those extensions over the weekend.
“There are strong differences of opinion within our party, and it’s not even a bipolar sort of situation,” Lee said. “Within the party, there are at least three points of view that have some support,” he added: Those like Paul who want to see the provisions permanently dismantled; those who want to see the alternative bill passed; and those like McConnell who prefer a straight reauthorization.
A new poll conducted by Morning Consult shows a plurality of registered voters, 42 percent, want to see modifications to the NSA’s surveillance powers. Just 27 percent say they favor a complete expiration of the Patriot Act provisions, while only 12 percent say they want the provisions extended without modification.
Any amendments to the bill under consideration in the Senate would force the House to take it up once again. The House passed the original bill by a wide, bipartisan margin before leaving last month for the Memorial Day recess; now, House GOP leaders say they want the Senate to act without amending their bill.
“I don’t know what they can and can’t do over there right now. But I think in the time and place with where we are, especially with the overwhelming support, and bipartisan inside this House, the best action moving forward: Take our bill and send it to the president,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters on Monday.