Key Democrats Rally Behind NSA Reform Bill

Defenders and critics of government spying are coming around to support the USA Freedom Act. But some Republicans want to wait until they're in power.

Two key Democrats on Tuesday pledged their support for a bill overhauling a government phone-spying program, giving the measure additional support just hours before it faces a contentious procedural vote.

Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, is one of the leading defenders of the National Security Agency. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, is one of its chief critics.

But both signaled they'll support the USA Freedom Act, which would limit the agency's mass collection of U.S. phone records—a program that was exposed publicly by Edward Snowden last summer.

"I am going to vote for this bill," Feinstein told reporters Tuesday. "The president wants it. The president has said that for several months, and the House, I believe—it doesn't quite mimic their bill, but it's very close to their bill."

Feinstein said she still prefers a reform bill she authored in her committee that would be more friendly to the NSA, but she acknowledged that her measure wouldn't pass the Senate or the House. Feinstein also said she would accept the Freedom Act without a mandate on the length of time telephone companies would be required to store their data, but added, "I've been assured the telecoms will hold the information for a period of time."

Wyden, who had previously suggested he might oppose the bill because it didn't go far enough, also said he would vote Tuesday to move the bill forward and begin debate. In addition, Sen. Mark Udall, also a privacy hawk, will vote to advance the USA Freedom Act, an aide confirmed.

"Let's get started on this. I would characterize this bill as a beginning, but let's get started," Wyden said. "Tonight is the beginning of reform."

Both Feinstein and Wyden had been considered key holdouts on advancing the measure toward debate. Wyden still appears likely to offer an amendment to close a "backdoor search" loophole that allows U.S. spies to "incidentally" collect American communications data without a warrant. Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday said he would allow amendments on the floor, a rare decision by the Nevada Democrat.

The endorsements from Feinstein and Wyden come as Republicans appear to be coalescing in opposition to the Freedom Act. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said the reform bill would aid terrorists such as the Islamic State, and he is working to get his caucus to vote down the measure tonight.

Only three Republicans—Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Dean Heller—have publicly backed the bill. But even with their support, it is not clear that the legislation will clear a 60-vote threshold to go forward.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul has said he will oppose the measure, despite his long-standing misgivings about the intelligence community's surveillance programs. Last week, Paul's office said the Kentuckian will oppose the measure because it does not go far enough and would renew a portion of the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, which grants the government expansive spying powers.

Several privacy advocates, however, have said they are hopeful Paul may vote to begin debate on Tuesday if the vote is close—and then against the actual bill, if it is not amended to his liking.