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US Lawmakers Scramble to Avoid Lapse in Domestic Surveillance

  • Michael Bowman

File - A mobile phone simulating a call sits next to a tablet computer showing the logo of the United Staes' National Security Agency (NSA) in this multiple exposure picture illustration.

File - A mobile phone simulating a call sits next to a tablet computer showing the logo of the United Staes' National Security Agency (NSA) in this multiple exposure picture illustration.

U.S. lawmakers of both parties and in both houses say they are unsure how Congress will deal with the federal government’s expiring authorization for domestic surveillance in the fight against terrorism.

Unless Congress acts, the National Security Agency will cease collecting Americans’ phone records June 1, the expiration date of the Patriot Act passed after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The law grants the U.S. government broad powers to probe and prevent terrorist plots.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Congress must “make sure we have access to the data we need to prevent another 9/11.”

To date, only one chamber has acted. The House of Representatives voted last week to keep phone records in the hands of telecommunications companies unless the NSA obtains a court order to review them.

Seeking bill's passage

Senate passage of the same bill would quickly and easily solve the problem, according to Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

“Just bring up the House bill and pass it. That’s the most logical [solution], the one that would protect our national security,” said Leahy.

That path is ruled out by the Senate’s Republican leadership, though, which favors reauthorizing the existing program. Instead, key senators have crafted a stop-gap measure that would extend the government’s snooping capabilities for a two-month period.

A temporary fix would allow deliberations to continue, according to Republican Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

“I hope that, because of the seriousness of the issue, we will get some period of time to be able to take an alternative to the floor and to have a real debate and a real chance for members to put [forward] their amendments to it,” said Burr.

The Senate is expected to hold domestic surveillance votes Saturday. But therein lies a calendar conflict. By Saturday, the House of Representatives will have adjourned for a week-long recess and be unavailable to vote on any Senate-passed bill by the June 1 deadline.

“The House has acted,” said Republican Speaker John Boehner when asked about the disconnect between the two legislative chambers. “Time for the Senate to act. If they act, we'll certainly look at what they do and make a decision about how to proceed.”

Procedural maneuver

Some senators are betting the House will find a way to vote on any Senate-passed bill.

“We cannot let the whole program lapse. Nobody wants that to happen,” said Republican Senator John McCain. “We know the House doesn’t want the whole program to lapse. I predict that’s not going to happen.”

Pressed on just what the House might do, McCain predicted a solution would be found through some sort of procedural maneuver.

The NSA program recently was ruled illegal by a federal appeals court, and its constitutionality ultimately could be decided by the Supreme Court unless Congress acts to reform it.

The White House wants the government’s bulk collection of phone data ended, but does not want information to disappear entirely.

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