WASHINGTON (AP) – The National Security Agency suspended its controversial collection of Americans’ phone records as Congress grappled Monday with how to restore expired surveillance laws the government has used to track terrorists and spies.
No solution was likely before Tuesday at the earliest, and the Republican lawmaker who helped trigger the gridlock took credit in a message to supporters that also sought donations to his presidential campaign.
“Yesterday, I forced the expiration of the NSA’s illegal spying program. Contribute $5 now to show your support,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
While Paul sought to capitalize on his position, House-passed legislation was stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading Republicans sought changes. In a rare Sunday session, they abandoned their opposition to the House bill in the face of exhortations by the president and senior intelligence officials to pass it quickly. Paul undercut their leverage by blocking their attempt to extend current law.
At the Senate opened business Monday, McConnell announced that he would seek three amendments to the House bill, which would end NSA’s collection phone records after a six month transition while allowing the agency to search the records held by the phone companies.
“We’ll have a vote on that legislation as soon as we can,” he said, without specifying a timeline.
McConnell characterized the proposed changes as modest, but a proposal to extend the transition to 12 months is bound to draw opposition.
A senior member of the House GOP leadership, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, said the best course would be for the Senate to approve the measure as written. But he pointedly did not rule out revisions. “I don’t know what the Senate could do. They said a lot of things,” he told reporters.
The legal lapse affected not only the NSA’s ability to collect domestic phone records in bulk. It also meant at least a temporary end to the FBI’s authority to gather business records in terrorism and espionage investigations, and to more easily eavesdrop on a suspect who is discarding cellphones to avoid surveillance.
“We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement issued Sunday night.
McConnell’s attempts to pass a short term renewal of existing law failed late Sunday, thwarted by Paul.
“This is what we fought the Revolution over, are we going to so blithely give up our freedom? … I’m not going to take it anymore,” he said. Supporters wearing red “Stand With Rand” T-shirts packed the spectator gallery.
Paul’s actions angered fellow Republicans, who watched helplessly as anti-terrorism authority lapsed only four months after they took control of the Senate.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. complained to reporters that Paul places “a higher priority on his fundraising and his ambitions than on the security of the nation.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, issued a statement that said: “Having gone past the brink, the Senate must now embrace the necessity of acting responsibly.”
The high-stakes drama played out as Congress debated significant changes prompted by the disclosures of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed the phone records collection and other main surveillance programs.
While intelligence officials publicly warned of danger, they said they were not deeply concerned with a lapse of a few days or weeks, given that the authorities remain available in pending investigations. What they most fear is a legislative impasse that could doom the programs permanently.
Obama supports the USA Freedom Act, which, passed the House overwhelmingly May 13.
Senate Republicans blocked that legislation on May 23, arguing that it undercut the NSA’s ability to quickly search the records. It fell three votes short of the 60 needed to advance.
But with no other options, McConnell, in an about-face, reluctantly embraced the House-passed bill Sunday night.
“It’s not ideal but, along with votes on some modest amendments that attempt to ensure the program can actually work as promised, it’s now the only realistic way forward,” McConnell said.