Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a solution to end the contentious debate over soon-to-expire surveillance powers granted to the government under the Patriot Act. A new bill, co-sponsored by McConnell and Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, and dropped on the Senate out of the blue Tuesday night, would put the matter to bed by locking in a controversial bulk data collection program, completely unchanged, for the next five years.
McConnell's proposal would reauthorize without revision Title II, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which enables a large part of the dragnet of American government surveillance and data collection first brought to public attention by former NSA employee Edward Snowden. With that provision set to expire on June 1, the Senate has been working on a set of bipartisan reforms that was expected to be unveiled this week, and the new McConnell-Burr bill could be an attempt to pull that measure closer to the existing law. From the Washington Post:
"This is to help stimulate our members beginning to look at the issue, to understand what this program is and more importantly understand its importance in our overall defense of the country," Burr told reporters in the Capitol. "I think it's safe to say there will probably be a few additional reforms. But what the straight reauthorization does is [it] creates the fence that the debate is going to happen within."
The "straight reauthorization" offered by Burr and McConnell—renewing current law, as originally passed in the post-9/11 Patriot Act, without any new strictures—offers one end of that fence. On the other, Burr said, are the proposals that have been put forth by reformers such as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is putting the finishing touches on a reform-minded reauthorization bill.
"I can't tell you what the point is that we're going to end," Burr said, "but it's somewhere between Leahy and Goodlatte and" his own bill.
Apart from Burr, the "straight reauthorization" plan has not earned many rave reviews from lawmakers. In a statement emailed to Slate, Sen. Leahy called McConnell's bill a "tone deaf attempt to pave the way for five and a half more years of unchecked surveillance" and vowed to "oppose any reauthorization of Section 215 that does not contain meaningful reforms."
In the House of Representatives, where no bills have yet been proposed to address the expiration of the surveillance provisions, the news of McConnell's bill was greeted with dismissal, bordering on contempt, from the GOP's anti-NSA libertarian wing.
Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican who recently criticized Sen. Marco Rubio's support for a "permanent extension" of NSA surveillance powers, told Slate that the proposal to keep Section 215 intact was "a fringe measure that has no chance of passing Congress" since "no serious representative or senator thinks it's OK to reauthorize unconstitutional spying on all Americans."
Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky expressed skepticism that the lower chamber would pass a similar bill to McConnell's, a wrinkle that would complicate the "fast-track" process that McConnell intends to use to push his bill toward President Obama's desk. "A clean reauthorization of the unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act is clearly out of step with public opinion," Massie told Slate, "and therefore likely to fail in the House."
Massie's fellow Kentucky Republican and longtime NSA critic Sen. Rand Paul, who recently pledged on the presidential campaign trail to end the "unconstitutional surveillance" authorized by the Patriot Act, has not commented publicly on the McConnell plan. Paul's spokeswoman told Slate Wednesday that she was sure Paul "will weigh in, in the near future."