After more than a decade of wrenching national debate over the intrusiveness of government intelligence agencies, a bipartisan wave of support has gathered to sharply limit the federal government’s sweeps of phone and Internet records.
On Thursday, a bill that would overhaul the Patriot Act and curtail the so-called metadata surveillance exposed by Edward J. Snowden was overwhelmingly passed by the House Judiciary Committee and was heading to almost certain passage in that chamber this month.
An identical bill in the Senate — introduced with the support of five Republicans — is gaining support over the objection of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, who is facing the prospect of his first policy defeat since ascending this year to majority leader.
The push for reform is the strongest demonstration yet of a decade-long shift from a singular focus on national security at the expense of civil liberties to a new balance in the post-Snowden era.
Under the bipartisan bills in the House and Senate, the Patriot Act would be changed to prohibit bulk collection, and sweeps that had operated under the guise of so-called National Security Letters issued by the F.B.I. would end. The data would instead be stored by the phone companies themselves, and could be accessed by intelligence agencies only after approval of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.
The legislation would also create a panel of experts to advise the FISA court on privacy, civil liberties, and technology matters, while requiring the declassification of all significant FISA court opinions.
The debate has resulted in a highly unusual alliance of House Speaker John A. Boehner, the White House, the Tea Party and a bipartisan majority in the House. They are in opposition to Mr. McConnell, his Intelligence Committee chairman, and a small group of defense hawks. In addition, two Republican presidential candidates in the Senate, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have made it clear they will not accept a straight extension of the current Patriot Act.
Unlike last year, when a similar bill passed the House overwhelmingly but failed in the Senate, this year’s USA Freedom Act was drafted in delicate negotiations among the House Judiciary Committee, House Intelligence Committee, House Republican leaders and supporters in the Senate. The Senate, now in Republican control, includes four freshmen who supported the bill in the House last year.
The act, which expires June 1, is up for its first reauthorization since the revelations about bulk data collection. That impending deadline, coupled with an increase of support among members of both parties, pressure from technology companies and a push from the White House have combined to make changes to the provisions more likely.
The overhaul bill passed the Judiciary Committee 25 to 2, uniting the likes of politicians who rarely agree, like Representatives Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, and Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York. An identical measure, by Senators Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, was unveiled Tuesday, a week after Mr. McConnell proposed a blanket five-year extension of the Patriot Act passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“I don’t think he’s listening to America,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah and a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, said of Mr. McConnell. “The seminal question is how much liberty are we going to give up for security? People are on the brink. They’re scared out of their wits.”
But Mr. McConnell holds powerful levers as the Senate leader that could halt the momentum or eventually alter the legislation.
For the moment, Mr. McConnell and Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina and Intelligence Committee chairman, seem to be increasingly isolated.
The Snowden disclosures, along with data breaches at Sony Pictures, Target and the insurance giant Anthem, have unsettled voters and empowered those in Congress arguing for greater civil liberties protection — who a few years ago “could have met in a couple of phone booths,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon.
That has proponents of the metadata collection straining to gain support. “I think people are reacting to a program they don’t know,” Mr. Burr said. Asked about turning back the momentum against him, he conceded, “I’ve got a big task.”
Mr. Snowden’s disclosures prompted a public backlash that ultimately convinced President Obama to back an end to that part of the program. But since the president declared an end to “bulk metadata program as it currently exists” in January 2014, little has changed, Intelligence Committee members said.
Lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee pushed for changes in the legislation to allow intelligence agents to continue to track suspected foreign terrorists when they enter the United States, even though at that point they are supposed to get a warrant. Agencies could continue their surveillance for 72 hours while they obtain legal authority.
The Intelligence Committee also insisted on a new procedure to use the Patriot Act to sweep up data in an emergency, but that information would have to be destroyed if the FISA court subsequently denies the request.
Mostly, though, the committee insisted the bill steer clear of the amendments of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, added in 2008, which legalized warrantless surveillance so long as the target is a noncitizen abroad. The current legislative effort in Congress would not stop surveillance of noncitizens overseas.
“I believe that the work of the Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee has produced a very good package,” Mr. Boehner said just before the Judiciary Committee vote.
The government would still be able to conduct some bulk data collection. The N.S.A. has used a section of the law that created the FISA court for vast sweeps of phone and email data. Judiciary Committee members from both parties sought to end that data-collection avenue as well, but leaders of the committee beat that effort back, saying the Republican leadership would torpedo the bill if it passed.
“If the perfect defeats the good, then bad prevails,” said Representative James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, an author of the Patriot Act who is now leading efforts to change it.
Mr. McConnell’s allies are trying to build support. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas who voted for a similar bill last year as a House member, met with freshman senators on Thursday to try to sway them to the leader’s side.
Along with Mr. Cotton, four other Republican Senate freshmen supported last year’s failed House bill.
Besides Mr. Lee, the Senate USA Freedom Act has four other Republican co-sponsors, including Mr. Cruz.
Another White House hopeful, Mr. Paul, does not think the bill goes far enough.
Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said, “After 9/11 I have been a supporter of the Patriot Act.” But he added, “At the end of the day you have to look at what you can craft with the current majority.”
A strong bipartisan House vote, expected as early as mid-May, “will send a strong message to the Senate that in the House, both sides of the aisle want reforms,” said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.
Facing a tight deadline, Mr. McConnell is also likely to bring his alternative bill to the Senate floor soon. It is unclear whether he would have the votes for his measure, although it is possible that with a slew of amendments, the Senate could produce a bill on the floor that could be melded with the House version.
Source: The New York Times