The U.S. Senate has blocked a House of Representatives bill that would have ended the bulk collection of domestic telephone data by the National Security Agency.
The Senate voted 57- 42 against the bill early Saturday, shortly after midnight. Sixty votes were needed to move ahead with the legislation that was overwhelmingly approved by the House last week.
The legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act, passed in the House by a vote of 338 to 88.
Instead of the bulk collection of domestic phone records, including the date, time and duration of phone calls, the House bill required the NSA to obtain the records from private phone companies after getting a court order from a secret national security court.
The massive data collection program came under fire from advocates of civil liberties after former contractor Edward Snowden disclosed it to journalists in 2013.
House bill had bipartisan support
The House bill received strong support from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, as well as President Barack Obama.
Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein said, "I've taken a good look at this. For those who want reform and want to prevent the government from holding the data, the Freedom Act is the only way to do it. The House has passed it, the president wants it. All of the intelligence personnel have agreed to it, and I think not to pass that bill is really to throw the whole program, that whole section 215 as well as the whole business records, the lone wolf, the roving wiretaps into serious legal jeopardy."
The measure was strongly opposed in the Senate by majority leader Mitch McConnell.
However, Republican Senator Rand Paul, who has declared he is a candidate for the 2016 presidential election, said, "We have 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."
The NSA bulk telephone collection program was authorized under the USA Patriot Act, which was passed in the days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
A federal appeals court in New York earlier this month ruled the NSA bulk collection program was illegal, but refused to issue an injunction against the agency.
The section of the USA Patriot Act that authorized the NSA program is due to expire on June 1. The Senate vote early Saturday leaves the fate of key provisions of the act in limbo.
However, McConnell said after the vote, the Senate would return from its recess on May 31 – a day early – to consider ways to prevent the loss of key provisions in the Patriot Act.
McConnell said, "This is a high threat period and we know what's going on overseas. We know what's been tried here at home. My colleagues – do we really want this law to expire? We got a week to discuss it. We'll have one day to do it."