May 29, 2015 / 8:40 PM / 5 years ago

Obama says 'handful of senators' blocking U.S. surveillance reforms

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama warned on Friday that surveillance powers used to prevent attacks on Americans could lapse at midnight on Sunday unless “a handful of senators” stop standing in the way of reform legislation.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Memorial Day observance at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia May 25, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Obama said he had told Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other senators that he expects them to act swiftly on a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would renew certain powers and reform the bulk collection of telephone data.

“I don’t want us to be in a situation in which for a certain period of time, those authorities go away and suddenly we’re dark and heaven forbid we’ve got a problem,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office.

McConnell has called the Senate back to Washington for a rare Sunday session to deal with the expiration of three provisions of the Patriot Act, including Section 215, used to justify the National Security Agency’s collection of billions of Americans’ telephone call records.

The NSA program has worried privacy advocates since it was exposed to journalists two years ago by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, now a fugitive in Russia.

On Friday, online activists blocked congressional offices’ access to thousands of websites to protest the Patriot Act.

Republican senators have been unable to agree on how to deal with the expiration. Late last week, the Senate failed by three votes to advance the USA Freedom Act, the reform bill backed by Obama and passed overwhelmingly by the House.

The Freedom Act would end the bulk collection of telephone records and replace it with a more targeted system for retrieving the information.

It is supported by Senate Democrats, but opposed by Republican security hawks, who want to extend the Patriot Act provisions, and libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

Paul and other privacy advocates have blocked efforts to pass any extension.

Congressional aides said backers might be able to win the additional three Senate votes to advance the Freedom Act, possibly by allowing opponents to offer amendments.

There were also signs of a shift in the House, where Republican leaders had resisted extension talk, instead urging the Senate to pass the Freedom Act.

In a memo to fellow Republicans, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said “further action on the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act may be necessary,” leaving open the possibility that the House might consider an extension.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan; editing by Doina Chiacu and Christian Plumb

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