By Julian Hattem – 05/17/15 02:30 PM EDT
A stalemate in the Senate would leave the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) without powers they have used to track terrorists for years, say supporters of the Patriot Act.
Without action by the end of the month, key provisions of the Patriot Act will expire, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argues would put the United States at a pre September 11, 2001-footing.
Yet McConnell has no definite path to extend those provisions.
He and other hawkish senators are pressing for an extension of the key Patriot Act measures, but they are opposed by other senators, the White House and a majority of House lawmakers in both parties.
The House voted last week to approve reforms to the NSA provisions in an overwhelming 338-88 vote.
McConnell filed a short-term extension of existing law just 24 hours later, signaling his determination to move in a different direction.
Observers say it’s increasingly looking like the standoff could result in no action by Congress, which would mean the Patriot Act provisions would lapse.
That would be a worst-case scenario for the NSA, but a pipe dream for ardent civil libertarians who have been rooting for such a result.
“Right now that we’re down to the wire… it’s just not clear to me how you get authorization through the Senate and the House,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union and critic of the law.
Defenders of the NSA say that would be disastrous for national security.
“Congress must act to reauthorize” the provisions, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) — two hawkish members of their respective Intelligence Committees — warned in an op-ed for Fox News on Friday. “The alternative is too dangerous.”
At issue is Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the federal government to collect “any tangible things” that are “relevant” to an investigation into terrorist or foreign intelligence activity.
The NSA has used that to collect millions of people’s phone call “metadata” — which include information about the numbers involved in a call and when the call occurred, but not people’s actual conversations — without a warrant. Supporters say that’s a crucial tool that has allowed the government to connect the dots between possible terrorist suspects.
If Congress doesn’t act, the program would end, the White House has said. The NSA would simply stop collecting the records.