Legislation

Senate blocks House bill on NSA surveillance, 2-month extension

June 6, 2013: A sign stands outside the National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md.

June 6, 2013: A sign stands outside the National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md.  (AP)

The Republican-led Senate blocked a House-passed bill and several short-term extensions of the USA Patriot Act early Saturday.

The big stumbling block was a House-passed measure to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of domestic phone records. Instead, the records would remain with telephone companies subject to a case-by-case review.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell favored retaining the program, but fellow Kentuckian and Republican presidential contender Rand Paul blocked any extension no matter how brief past the midnight May 31 expiration.

"This week, I stood on the floor for roughly 11 hours in defense of the Fourth Amendment and successfully blocked the renewal of the Patriot Act,” Paul said in a statement.

“We should never give up our rights for a false sense of security. This is only the beginning-- the first step of many.  I will continue to do all I can until this illegal government spying program is put to an end, once and for all."

McConnell announced early Saturday that the Senate would begin a week-long Memorial Day break and return Sunday, May 31, just hours before the programs lapse.

The Senate had been pressured by the White House to pass the House bill, which drew a large bipartisan vote last week and had the backing of GOP leaders, Democrats and the libertarian-leaning members.

However, the Senate blocked the bill by a vote of 57-42, just shy of the 60-vote threshold to move ahead.

The vote was followed by the rejected of a two-month extension to the existing programs. The vote went 54-45, short of the 60-vote threshold once again.

After the two votes, McConnell repeatedly asked for an even shorter renewal of current law ticking down days from June 8 to June 2. However, opponents of the post-Sept. 11 law objected every time.

Whatever the Senate approves, must be passed by the House, which had already left for Washington for the Memorial Day recess.

Officials say they will lose valuable surveillance tools if the Senate fails to go along with the house. But key GOP senators, including McConnell, disapprove of the House’s approach.

In the near term, the Justice Department has said the NSA would begin winding down its collection of domestic calling records this week if the Senate fails to act because the collection takes some time to halt.

At issue is a section of the Patriot Act, Section 215, used by the government to justify secretly collecting the "to and from" information about nearly every American landline telephone call. For technical and bureaucratic reasons, the program was not collecting a large chunk of mobile phone records, which made it less effective as few people continued to use landlines.

When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the program in 2013, many Americans were outraged that the agency had their calling records. President Obama ultimately announced a plan similar to the USA Freedom Act and asked Congress to pass it. He said the plan would preserve the NSA's ability to hunt for domestic connections to international plots without having an intelligence agency holding millions of Americans' private data.

Because the government had the extraordinary powers, Section 215 of the Patriot Act was designed to expire at midnight May 31, unless Congress renews it.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the government would transition over six months to a system under which it queries the phone companies with known terrorists' numbers to get back a list of numbers that had been in touch with a terrorist number.

But if Section 215 expires without replacement, the government would lack the blanket authority to conduct those searches. There would be legal methods to hunt for connections in U.S. phone records to terrorists, said current and former U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. But those methods would not be applicable in every case.

Far less attention has been paid to two other surveillance authorities that expire as well. One makes it easier for the FBI to track "lone wolf" terrorism suspects who have no connection to a foreign power, and another allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who continuously discard their cellphones in an effort to avoid surveillance.

Fox News’ Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report