WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to allow a measure that would renew key parts of the now-expired Patriot Act, a controversial bulk phone data collection program that expired earlier this week. The Senate vote, which was 83-14, sets up a fight over amendments and final passage of that program, now renamed the USA Freedom Act.
Several key provisions of the Patriot Act expired Monday at midnight after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kent., voiced strong objections to the bill and delayed the process. But he lacked the votes needed to grind the renewal process to a complete halt, and on Tuesday morning the Senate moved closer to final passage. Most of the opposition came from Republicans, including Paul and fellow presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., is trying to amend the USA Freedom Act, which already gained approval in the House. The bill would change the way bulk phone data is collected, keeping the information stored with the phone companies instead of the government. McConnell said the Obama administration has yet to guarantee that such changes would be immediately implemented.
“These are not small problems,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “The legislation we're considering proposes major changes to some of our nation’s most fundamental and necessary counter-terrorism tools.”
Under the House-passed bill, those changes would occur immediately. McConnell wants to create a transition period, allowing the government to continue to collect the data until the new system can be created, tested and verified. Republican opponents in the House have said the delay is unacceptable. If McConnell succeeds in amending the legislation, it will need to gain House approval. Otherwise, the government will remain unable to collect any data or to use other provisions of the law, including roving wiretaps and “lone wolf” detection measures.
Conservative groups are arguing against McConnell’s amendments, and that could augur trouble in the House. So far, the USA Freedom Act has enjoyed unusual support from both tea party groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We support passage of the USA Freedom Act as passed by the House, and see no need whatsoever for these amendments which are obviously designed to weaken the bill,” Tea Party Patriots CEO Jenny Beth Martin said in a statement. “Simply put, if it is amended in the manner that the Majority Leader desires, we will be forced to consider withdrawing our support for the bill altogether."