U.S. Senate votes spell uncertain fate for domestic surveillance program

A bill to end U.S. spy agencies’ bulk collection of Americans’ telephone data, called the “USA Freedom Act”, is blocked in the United States Senate. A follow-up vote to extend for two months the current “USA Patriot Act” program which authorizes the collection of so-called telephone “metadata” also fails to pass.

WASHINGTON D.C., UNITED STATES (MAY 22, 2015) (SENATE TV) – A measure to extend spy agencies’ bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records was blocked in the U.S. Senate early on Saturday (May 23), leaving the fate of the program uncertain days before it expires on June 1.

By a vote of 54-45, the Senate failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance a bill that would have extended for two months provisions of the “USA Patriot Act” that allow the collection of vast amounts of telephone “metadata”.

The data collection program, in which the National Security Agency sweeps up vast amounts of Americans’ telephone records and business information, was exposed two years ago by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who is now a fugitive in Russia.

The vote against the extension came after the Senate narrowly blocked the “USA Freedom Act,” a bill that would end the bulk telephone data collection and replace it with a more targeted program.

“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,” said Democratic senator Diane Feinstein from California.

That vote was 57-42, just short of the 60 needed.

President Barack Obama’s administration had pushed hard for the Freedom Act. The House of Representatives backed it by an overwhelming margin, with strong support from Republicans and Democrats, on May 13.

Backers of the bill in the House, including Representative Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Senate’s failure to act risked the Patriot Act provisions’ expiration before the House returns to Washington late on June


The Senate’s Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed short extensions, ending with one lasting only until June 2, to keep the Patriot Act provisions from expiring. But they were blocked by Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich.

“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?” said McConnell.

The Patriot Act was passed to increase national security in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Backers of the Freedom Act argued that it provided national security protections while eliminating provisions of the Patriot Act that raised privacy concerns.

Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate and vocal advocate for privacy rights, led more than 10 hours of speeches against the Patriot Act on Wednesday.

“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,” Paul said on the Senate floor on Saturday.

After failing to get an extension, McConnell said the Senate would return to Washington on Sunday, May 31, one day before the scheduled end of its Memorial Day holiday recess, to consider ways to address the imminent expiration of the Patriot Act provisions.