Updated 4:49 p.m. | Senate advocates for an overhaul of National Security Agency surveillance programs sound confident they have the votes to advance the USA Freedom Act. It’s just a matter of time.
“I think we’ll get it passed on Sunday night,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., told CNN Saturday, making a bullish prediction on the timing. “Now, by the rules of the Senate, with objections and so forth … the Patriot Act may very well expire Sunday night, but we’ve got to start moving forward here. We could have done this a week ago. And this is the nature of Washington, D.C., is always managing by crisis.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, expressed a similar sentiment Sunday morning, also appearing on CNN.
“At this point I think the question is not really about whether we’ll get this passed, but when,” Lee said. “It’ll happen either tonight, or it’ll happen on Wednesday, or sometime in between then. But really, within that 72-hour window, we are going to pass the House-passed USA Freedom Act, which passed the House with a bipartisan super-majority of 338 votes. This is a good day for the American people.”
The Senate Republican Conference is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. to discuss the way forward, according to a senior GOP aide. Under a prior agreement, roll call votes are expected to begin at 6 p.m. Sunday, and senators were told to expect three votes, culminating in ending a filibuster on bringing the USA Freedom Act to the floor.
When the Senate last met for legislative business, Lee and company fell three votes short of the 60 needed to overcome the procedural hurdle to take up the bill, with senators concerned about the prospect of losing a recess to a protracted national security debate.
Before Daines appeared on CNN Saturday afternoon, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made clear he intended to use the rules and procedures of the Senate to ensure there is a lapse in the current authorization for the Patriot Act provisions that are set to expire, including the particularly contentious bulk collection of telephone records that the USA Freedom Act would effectively shift record-keeping of to the companies themselves.
Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, an Intelligence Committee member, reaffirmed Sunday on CNN that while he supported the concept of having the NSA not be the one behind collecting records in bulk, he had ongoing concerns that the telephone companies would not be compelled to maintain the records for any specific duration.
“My concern is that if you move it out of the government, leave it with the phone companies, and the phone companies say ‘oh, we’re deciding we’re only going to hold that data for a week or a month or six months,’ then the program loses its functionality all together and you’ve in effect repealed it without really saying so,” said King, a rare skeptic of the USA Freedom Act within the Democratic caucus.
Under the overhaul that’s likely to become law, the government would have to make specific queries of that metadata.
With Paul appearing to be on a Senate island , the Senate could vote to proceed to the NSA legislation before midnight Sunday, making Monday the intervening day for a motion by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to limit debate on the bill itself, setting up key votes as early as 1 a.m. Tuesday to invoke cloture on the bill, perhaps consider amendments and — after maybe as little as another hour of speaking by Paul — move to final passage.
In other words, the Senate could have the bill ready for processing to be sent to President Barack Obama before the sun rises Tuesday.
“I hope not, I think that would be unfortunate. I think that would be unnecessary,” Lee said of a possible lapse in authorities, adding that he tried to bring the legislation up before the Memorial Day break. “We’ve known for four years that this deadline was approaching.”
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