Senate gears up for Saturday USA Freedom Act vote; House breaks for recess

The USA Freedom Act’s fate will soon be decided with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announcing on Thursday that the Senate will convene for a rare Saturday vote on the bill.
The USA Freedom Act’s fate will soon be decided with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announcing on Thursday that the Senate will convene for a rare Saturday vote on the bill.

The USA Freedom Act's fate will soon be decided with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announcing on Thursday that the Senate will convene for a rare Saturday vote on the bill.

The bill would effectively shut down the National Security Agency's (NSA) bulk collection of phone metadata, or Section 215, while preserving certain more favorable portions of the USA PATRIOT Act.

But it's not just the House's bill that the Senate will be considering this holiday weekend; it will also vote on McConnell's preferred plan, a two-month extension of the controversial PATRIOT Act.

Although the White House administration voiced its support for the USA Freedom Act, and the House overwhelmingly passed it, the bill's passing ultimately hinges on the turned support of Senate Republicans, many of whom would rather pass a renewal of the 2001 law.

It remains unclear whether the new bill will receive the 60 votes needed to pass, but at least one more Senator, Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), said he would now back the bill after opposing a previous version last year.

However, even if the Senate doesn't pass the USA Freedom Act, and instead votes in favor of a renewal of the Patriot Act, the House has already left for its Memorial Day recess, which spans through May 29. They will not be returning until June 1, at which point the PATRIOT Act will have expired.

The House would have to be called back from its recess in order to pass a renewal, an unlikely move, and if nothing is passed this weekend or this month, Congress would have to devise completely new legislation because it cannot extend the existing authority.

With the Senate's looming and uncertain decision, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a memo on Wednesday instructing the NSA to begin preparations on Friday to end its bulk telephone metadata collection program.

“After May 22, 2015, the National Security Agency will need to begin taking steps to wind down the bulk telephone metadata program in anticipation of a possible sunset in order to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection or use of metadata,” the memo stated.

Furthermore, even if a renewal passes, the government could be exposed to litigation risk if there is a legal challenge, the memo said, which warrants scaling back the program with the eventual plan to shut it down.

So the NSA's winding down its program and McConnell set a vote.

Meanwhile, McConnell's Kentucky counterpart, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), commandeered the Senate floor on Wednesday in an effort to protest the PATRIOT Act.

His speech lasted nearly 11 hours and primarily focused on the unacceptable surveillance of Americans' private communications.

“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer,” he said. “That time is now, and I will not let the PATRIOT Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged.”

Via a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” chat on Thursday, former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden said Paul's move represents a “sea of change” from a few years ago when surveillance laws were passed without any “meaningful opposition or debate.”

He went on to urge concerned readers to call their senators because “right now it looks like they're going to force the reauthorization vote to occur during the dark of a holiday weekend," he said.

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