After House vote, USA Freedom Act moves to Senate

The USA Freedom Act was passed by the House Wednesday but critics call for strengthening of bill in the Senate.
The USA Freedom Act was passed by the House Wednesday but critics call for strengthening of bill in the Senate.

The proposed USA Freedom Act may have lived to see another day after the House passed it—without any amendments attached-- in a 338-88 vote, but its long-term fate rests on a vote by a Senate deeply divided on the legislation.

The bill is seen as a compromise to soothe both Democrats and Republicans who are entertaining the prospect of renewing the USA PATRIOT Act's Section 215, which gives the National Security Agency (NSA) broad powers of surveillance. Most Democrats would like to see the sun set on Section 215 while Republicans, by and large, are angling for a full renewal of the law enacted after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, D-Ky., has thrown his support behind the renewal of a “clean” bill.

But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have both threatened to filibuster when the Senate attempts to vote on the Patriot Act, which expires on June 1, with Wyden saying he'd have to see serious reforms to the law before he could throw his support behind it.

If the Senate moves forward with a short-term extension of what Wyden called a “flawed law,” the Oregon Democrat told MSNBC, “I intend to filibuster that on the floor of the Senate unless there are major reforms like getting rid of the bulk phone records collection program.”

The USA Freedom Act, which died in the Senate last year after support from the House, would keep metadata out of the reach of the NSA unless the agency hands over search warrants to telecommunications companies that would store and maintain the metadata.

After a Second Circuit court ruled last week in ACLU v. Clapper that the NSA's collection program exceeded the authority granted to it by Congress, many contended that lawmakers had an opportunity to strengthen the USA Freedom Act. But a House committee ruled that the bill would go to a House vote without any potential amendments that might strengthen it and give it teeth.

“We believe the House missed an opportunity to strengthen the bill in light of the recent Second Circuit decision,” said a blog post by the Electronic Freedom Frontier, which has remained neutral on what it believes is a diluted bill.  “We're urging the Senate to take steps to strengthen the bill.”

In a Monday blog post, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani outlined a handful of “improvements” that could make the USA Freedom Act stronger, including amending it “to prevent surveillance of individuals with no nexus to terrorism” as well as including “procedures to ensure the government purges irrelevant information.”

The public also needs “a strong advocate in the FISC,” which typically only hears the government side, she said, while the bill should also “limit additional authorities that have been used to collect Americans' records in bulk.”

Guliani also recommended that the bill should be amended to “stop the government from using Section 702 of FISA as a backdoor to conduct surveillance on Americans” and put a halt to the government "using the 'material support' laws against individuals who have no intent to support terrorism.”

The White House has thrown its support behind the USA Freedom Act, urging for its adoption. A vote in the Senate is expected by May 22.

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