The Senate earlier rejected a host of amendments offered by McConnell that were intended to weaken the legislation. Those proposals came only after the majority leader buckled under growing pressure to allow the reform measure—which he initially whipped aggressively against—to go forward.
Before the final vote, McConnell made one last impassioned plea to his colleagues, despite the bill's victory being clear. Casting blame on Obama, McConnell said the U.S. would be more at risk of terrorist attacks after the bill's passage.
"While the president has inflexibly clung to campaign promises made in 2008, the threat of al-Qaida has metastasized around the world," McConnell said. Now was not the time, he said, to "take one more tool away."
"We're talking about call-data records," he added, raising his voice. "Nobody's civil liberties are being violated here."
Others disagreed, including a wide-ranging chorus of supporters—tech firms, privacy advocates, civil libertarians, and tea-party activists—who viewed the Freedom Act as a critical step toward restoring rights lost in the rush to protect security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And some, including Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, said the legislation does not go far enough.
The Freedom Act's passage is the crescendo of nearly two years of start-and-stop bipartisan, bicameral work to pull back the government's post-9/11 surveillance powers that began shortly after the disclosures by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in June of 2013.
Most notably, the bill would end the NSA's once-secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify its bulk collection of U.S. call metadata, the first and most controversial of the programs exposed by Snowden. In lieu of that mass-surveillance regime, the Freedom Act calls for a transition within 6 months to a system where phone companies provide records to government spies on an as-needed, more-targeted basis after judicial approval is obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, called the Freedom Act's passage an "historic moment" that amounted to "the most significant surveillance reform in decades." The Vermont Democrat has been a main architect of the Freedom Act from the beginning, twice seeing the legislation fail before the Senate before finally seeing it triumph on Tuesday.
Leahy was able to consistently hold virtually all Democrats together behind the reform package, as few wavered from supporting the bill. But though the Freedom Act earned lopsided bipartisan support in the House, Republican votes in the Senate proved incredibly more difficult to find.
Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican and another author of the Freedom Act, engaged in the highest-profile whipping operation of his career Tuesday, pacing on the Senate floor just inches away from the running vote tally with notecards he'd sketched out of those who were with him already and those who might be convinced to join him in voting down McConnell's amendments.