The US Senate has blocked the USA Freedom Act, a bill passed by the US House of Representatives, and refused to extend the Patriot Act beyond its June 1 expiration date early Saturday, making an interruption in government surveillance programmes a very likely possibility.
The USA Freedom Act was a compromise that would end the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial bulk collection of telephone metadata. It would instead allow phone records to be collected by carriers and accessed by the government on a case-by-case basis pending court approval.
A US appeals court concluded on May 6 that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone metadata exceeded the scope of what Congress authorised under the US Patriot Act Section 215 and was therefore illegal.
The USA Freedom Act was passed by the House 338-88 last week with bipartisan support, but failed in the Senate 57-42 just three shy of the 60-vote threshold, despite efforts by the White House to convince senators.
Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) was in favor of extending the USA Patriot Act instead of approving the USA Freedom Act.
“The untried - and as of yet, nonexistent - bulk-collection system envisioned under [the USA Freedom Act] would be slower and more cumbersome than the one that currently helps keep us safe,” he told the Senate on Friday. In the worst case scenario, he added, “it might not work at all.”
Following the rejection of the USA Freedom Act, the Senate moved to vote on whether to extend the expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act for two months.
The Senate was unable to muster 60 votes for a temporary extension of three expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, including Section 215 which the NSA had used to justify the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone metadata, with a distribution of 54-45.
McConnell then proposed much shorter extensions, for seven, four and two days, which were shot down by Rand Paul (R-Ken.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) respectively, who used their rights as individual senators to oppose quick action on any question.
McConnell’s final offer of a one-day extension was once again thwarted by Paul, effectively ending any chance of “quick action.”
Presidential candidate Rand Paul took the US Senate floor for ten and a half hours on May 21 to oppose the renewal of the Patriot Act, which he called “a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
The Senate will return early from their weeklong vacation on May 31, a day before the Patriot Act provisions expire, to deliberate further.