The National Security Agency began shutting down their telephone data surveillance program, as the Senate failed to advance the two-month USA Patriot Act extension and the House’s reform bill the USA Freedom Act. The extension and bill failed to reach the 60-vote threshold. Just after midnight on Saturday, May 23, 2015, the Senate voted against the USA Freedom Act with a vote of 57 to 42 with 45 to 54 against the extension. The extension bill would have extended the highly controversial Section 215.
Only 12 Republicans voted in favor of the House passed USA Freedom Act including “Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).” Three parts of the NSA program is set to expire on June 1. The Senate however, will try again to pass the bill when then they return from the Memorial Day recess on May 31. Even if the Senate does pass the extension, the House does return until June 1, the expiration date. McConnell scheduled the “rare” Sunday session to give the Senate “one more opportunity to act responsibly.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) urged the Senate to pass the extension believing it is vital for national security, “We need to act responsibly on behalf of the American people.” McConnell prefers the two-month extension, “The two-month extension, it strikes me, would be in the best interest of getting an outcome that’s in the best interest for the Senate and the House and hopefully the president.”
Before adjourning McConnell reminded the Senators about the need to extend the program, and that they have to do so upon returning, “We know what’s going on overseas. We know what’s been tried here at home. We’ve got a week to discuss it. We’ll have one day to do it. But we’d better get ready next Sunday afternoon to prevent the country from the danger by the total expiration of the program.”
The House however, objects to extending the Patriot Act having already passed a bill reforming the NSA’s program, the USA Freedom Act, with an overwhelming vote of 338 to 88. The House bill would do what Paul wants end bulk collection of phone data, but still Paul does not support that bill either, he wants to add six amendments. With USA Freedom Act the NSA would only be able ask phone companies for records relating to specific cases, neither would they be allowed to maintain a database of phone records.
The extension’s failure comes only two days after Kentucky Senator Rand Paul held a 10 and a half hour filibuster against the NSA’s telephone records collection program. Paul has continually vowed to prevent the extension’s passage, and instead want the debate to begin on the House’s bill so he can introduce the amendments he wants to it.
Before the bill failed, Paul said, “We’ve entered into a momentous debate. This is a debate about whether or not a warrant with a single name of a single company can be used to collect all the records. All of the phone records of all of the people in our country with a single warrant. Our forefathers would be aghast.” Paul was the one who delayed the bill to past midnight, as Majority Leader McConnell tried to convince the Senate just to vote for shorter extension and even for a one-day extension. When McConnell tried to get the program extended to “June 8, then June 5, followed by June 3 and finally June 2” with no avail, facing four objections, three from Paul.
The failed vote signaled the NSA to begin winding down their phone records collection program. An administration confirmed that they started doing so on Saturday, May 22, 2015; “We’ve said for the past several days that the wind-down process would need to begin yesterday if there was no legislative agreement. That process has begun.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated just before the vote failed, “There is no Plan B, The fact is we’ve got people in the United States Senate right now who are playing chicken with this. And to play chicken with that is grossly irresponsible.”
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.