Today the Senate voted 67-32 to pass the USA-FREEDOM Act, a piece of surveillance (read: privacy!) reform legislation meant to extend key provisions of the PATRIOT Act, which expired Sunday night.
The USA-FA passed the House with supermajority, bipartisan support, but found a more hostile crowd waiting when it arrived in the Senate chamber. Rand Paul opposed it, and on Sunday night (the same night the PATRIOT Act expired) blocked a vote that most certainly would have ended with the Act’s approval. Senate leadership opposed an immediate clean passage of the Act, but for different reasons entirely—they wanted the opportunity to amend and return to the House, a tactic that was met with opposition in both chambers. From earlier today:
One amendment would extend the timeframe for transferring data collection responsibilities from the NSA to the phone companies, allowing 12 months for that handover rather than six, as the House bill stipulates. Another would force phone companies to give Congress six months’ advance notice if they change the procedures they use to collect and retain data. A third would allow the Director of National Intelligence to sign off on any procedural changes by the phone companies before they go into effect.
“The House’s bill is not holy writ. It’s not something we have to accept in its entirety without any changes…and I think where the policy debae should go would be toe embrace these amendments,” explained Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, during a floor speech on Tuesday. “We sure need to know that the new system would actually work. Doesn’t that just make sense?”
Lawmakers who crafted the House bill, though, have warned that they won’t accept the Senate’s proposed changes, and one top House Republican leader underscored that warning Tuesday.
“I think if the senate changes it, it would bring a real challenge inside the house,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCArthy, R-California, told reporters during a briefing. “The best way to make sure America is protected is for the Senate to pass [the U.S.A. Freedom Act].”
Those amendments all failed pending final passage of the bill.
On Sunday, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) was already confident that at some point, the Senate would pass the USA-FA without any amendments. Watch:
“This is a good day for the American people,” said Sen. Lee. “I do believe we have the votes. The question is not whether we will get this passed, but when. Either it will happen tonight, or Wednesday, or some time in between then, but within that 72 hour window we are going to pass the House-passed USA-FREEDOM Act.
This is a good day for the American people, whose privacy and Fourth Amendment rights will be protected. At the same time their national security interest will also be protected and preserved.
He was right—it passed, and it’s on its way to the president’s desk.
I want to point out something important here regarding Senate leadership. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not advocate for a clean passage of the USA-FA. In a floor speech just prior to the final vote, McConnell asked that the chamber not pass the House version of the Act, citing concerns that the language of the bill weakens America’s ability to protect itself. He had (and still has) a valid point—but he allowed that point to be debated, and when it was clear his caucus favored a clean passage, he allowed the vote to proceed.
If it were Harry Reid leading the majority, we’d still be embroiled in conflict, facing an expired surveillance program with no plan to move forward. Good on McConnell for recognizing that, and listening to his caucus.
President Obama has promised to sign the bill “as soon as he gets it”:
Glad the Senate finally passed the USA Freedom Act. It protects civil liberties and our national security. I'll sign it as soon as I get it.
— President Obama (@POTUS) June 2, 2015
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