Fourteen years after the Patriot Act gave sweeping spy powers to the government in its war against terrorism, a consensus is finally emerging in Congress that the government needs to be reined in—at least a bit. The next two weeks could determine whether that consensus will yield a new law.
In a bipartisan vote of 338-88, the House on Wednesday afternoon passed the USA Freedom Act, which seeks to restrain the nation’s surveillance state while extending other key parts of the 2001 Patriot Act that are set to expire at the end of the month. At its core, the House measure ends the NSA’s bulk collection program first exposed two years ago by Edward Snowden, and requires the government to be more transparent about the data it seeks from citizens. The vote comes just a week after a federal appeals court ruled that the Patriot Act’s controversial Section 215 did not authorize the bulk collection program, which allowed the NSA to access domestic telephone metadata. The ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t end the program, which the Freedom Act would.
The House measure represented a rare and genuine bipartisan compromise, drawing support from the original author of the Patriot Act, conservative Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, along with liberal Democrats like John Conyers of Michigan and Jerrold Nadler of New York, staunch civil libertarians. The White House has said that President Obama would sign it. Yet it faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to extend the entire Patriot Act, untouched, for another five years. Democrats have vowed to block that effort and are hoping that the strong House vote and the chance that the surveillance programs could expire altogether on June 1 will force McConnell to accept the reform bill. A short-term extension, giving the Senate more time to debate, is also possible. (The Senate has a recess scheduled after next week.)