WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate advanced legislation on Sunday reforming a controversial program that collects Americans’ telephone call records, but final passage appeared doubtful before the surveillance system expires at midnight.
A bill that would end U.S. spy agencies’ bulk collection of the telephone data and replace it with a more targeted system cleared a crucial procedural hurdle, ending an impasse over whether to move ahead with the legislation.
The Senate voted 77-17 in favor of a measure that allowed the chamber to begin debate on the bill, called the USA Freedom Act. But the domestic surveillance program was still due to expire at midnight (12:00 a.m. EDT on Monday) after Senator Rand Paul blocked several attempts at short-term extensions.
Senate rules mean it likely will be the middle of the week before the chamber can vote on whether or not to pass the Freedom Act, which extends the existing surveillance program for six months while the new system gets up and running.
Still, Paul, a Republican 2016 presidential hopeful who had vigorously opposed the Freedom Act, acknowledged after the procedural vote: “This bill will ultimately pass.”
The bill would replace three key surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act, signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Parts of it have been renewed under Democratic President Barack Obama. Under the law, the eavesdropping National Security Agency collects and searches U.S. telephone records - but not the content of the calls themselves - in a program first made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Action to renew or reform the program had stalled in the Senate, due largely to disputes within the Republican Party, which holds majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate.
Libertarians want the program ended altogether, while security hawks want it extended, unchanged.
The Senate came back early from its Memorial Day recess to resume consideration of the legislation at 4 p.m. EDT (04:00 p.m. EDT) on Sunday, just as security officials said they had to begin shutting down the NSA program to meet the midnight deadline.
As the Senate session got underway, Paul vowed to force the program to expire, called it illegal and the beginning of a powerful surveillance state.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg, what we’re talking about here,” he said.
But another Republican, Senator Dan Coats, warned that the phone records program could expire at a time of heightened militant threats.
The Islamic State group “has made a direct threat toward the United States and its citizens,” Coats said. It “looks like we’ll have the opportunity to debate this while the program expires,” he said.
Supporters of the Freedom Act need 60 votes to move it forward in the 100-member Senate.
A previous attempt on May 23 fell three votes short and the bill’s backers have been pushing hard to sway three more senators.
One senator who voted against the bill on May 23, Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, said on Sunday he would now vote “yes.”
Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, said he believed there were now enough votes to pass the Freedom Act. “Everybody’s come to their senses,” he said.
The Freedom Act, which ends the spy agencies’ bulk collection of domestic telephone “metadata” and replaces it with a more targeted system, has already passed the House by an overwhelming margin and has Obama’s strong support.
Along with the call records program, other government investigative powers would lapse after midnight Sunday.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation will no longer be able to employ ‘roving wiretaps’ aimed at terrorism suspects who use multiple disposable cell phones, and it will have more difficulty seizing such suspects’ and their associates’ personal and business records.
A review panel that Obama established in 2013 concluded that the telephone metadata program had not been essential to preventing any terrorist attack. Security officials counter that it provides important data that, combined with other intelligence, can help stop attacks.
CIA Director John Brennan, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program, said data collection was “important to American lives” and that being without them could mean missing warning of a big attack on the United States.
Under the Freedom Act, the telephone records would be held by telecommunications companies, not the government, and the NSA would have to get court approval to gain access to specific data.
Additional reporting by Douwe Miedema and Bill Trott.; Editing by Crispian Balmer, Mohammad Zargham and Eric Walsh