The two top Republicans on Capitol Hill are locked in an unusual standoff over the nation’s ability to continue conducting surveillance operations to track potential terror threats.
With less than two weeks to go before the National Security Agency surveillance program’s authority expires, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who both stress the need for the program – are at odds over how to renew it.
The disagreement centers on whether it should be the responsibility of the government or telecommunications companies to store phone records. McConnell wants to see the current law extended as it is. Boehner, however, favors the USA Freedom Act, a law overwhelmingly passed by the House last week that would have the companies hold onto the data, which could only be accessed by intelligence agencies through authorization from special courts.
Both Democratic and Republican proponents of the law admit that they aren’t confident the dispute will be resolved in time to avoid a disruption in the program that was put in place after the 9/11 attacks.
“The House had an overwhelmingly large vote for the USA Freedom Act. It’s time for the Senate to act,” Boehner said Tuesday after he was asked about McConnell’s opposition to the law. “I don’t try to suggest what the Senate should or shouldn’t do. But the Senate needs to act, and when they act, we’ll get the next step.”
Boehner sidestepped a question on whether he would support a short-term extension of the current law or another compromise proposal, repeating that the Senate needed to deal with the issue. It’s an argument being echoed by Senate Democrats. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third highest-ranking Senate Democrat, said McConnell was “alone on an island” and that the broad support for the USA Freedom Act in the House was like a “boat” being offered to McConnell to get off that island.
Minority Leader Harry Reid also pointed to the strong bipartisan vote for the reform bill in the House and called the path in the Senate “extremely clear.” Reid also referred to the current law as “illegal,” a reference to a recent federal appeals court ruling that Congress had not specifically authorized the data collection program when it approved the Patriot Act in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.
“We should reform the NSA’s illegal spying powers. Extending an illegal program would be deeply irresponsible, especially when bipartisan reform is on the table,” Reid said. “One hundred and ninety Republicans voted for it in the House. How can Republicans over here say that’s not good enough?”
McConnell said Tuesday there would be a vote on the USA Freedom Act in the Senate this week, but while Schumer said “almost all the Democrats” would vote for the legislation, it is not clear the bill can get the 60 votes needed to clear the chamber. McConnell has put forward a bill to extend the current law as is for 60 days, a move supported by top Senate Republican leaders, but it is not clear whether that bill has enough support to pass, either.
House leaders say they plan to wrap up work and leave town Thursday for a week-long recess for the Memorial Day holiday, potentially before the Senate votes.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said Monday he is trying to find a compromise that would keep the data in the hands of the government for now but eventually transition it to the phone companies. He said if the Senate passes that bill or a separate short-term extension, the House could approve it when it reconvenes June 1 and not cause significant disruption to the surveillance program.
Such a plan is not likely to sit well with House members, who feel their big vote last week was a clear signal of what the House feels should become law.
“They ought to take the House-passed bill, which was passed overwhelmingly in bipartisan fashion, and pass that bill,” said Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second highest-ranking House Democrat. But he said he didn’t believe the Senate would be able to pass any NSA bill this week, citing a threat from Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul to filibuster an extension.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who supports a clean extension of the Patriot Act, downplayed Paul’s ability to block the bill.
“He’ll get a lot of publicity for a day or so, but it won’t affect the process overall,” he said.
McCain was also asked what the split over the issue says about the Republican Party.
“It says that we ought to get our act together,” McCain replied.