WASHINGTON: The US Senate rejected legislation early Saturday aimed at reforming NSA intelligence gathering, a blow to President Barack Obama and others who support ending the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records.
Senators also rejected efforts to extend the USA Patriot Act, increasing the prospects that the legal underpinnings of the domestic surveillance program will expire by June 1.
The House of Representatives passed the reform measure overwhelmingly last week, with Democrats and Republicans uniting in their desire to rein in the National Security Agency’s highly controversial program that scoops up data from millions of Americans who have no connection to terrorism.
But it got hung up in the Senate, where it failed 57-42, shy of the 60 necessary to advance in the chamber.
Three provisions — the telephone dragnet, roving wiretaps and lone-wolf tracking — are set to expire at the end of the month.
With no reforms in place, and a lapse in national security operations looming, Senate leaders sought to temporarily reauthorize the Patriot Act which governs such intelligence operations.
But several extensions offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were rejected, triggering an extraordinary scramble for an overnight solution on the Senate floor before lawmakers were to go on a scheduled one-week break.
McConnell said the Senate could come back into session a day early, May 31, in order to prevent a lapse in crucial national security operations.
“We’re left with this option only,” a chastened McConnell told colleagues at about 1:30 a.m. after lawmakers rejected a two-month extension and several shorter options.
“We’ll have a week to discuss it. We’ll have one day to do it. But we better be ready next Sunday afternoon to prevent the country from being in danger by the total expiration of the program that we’re all familiar with.”
On Friday the White House drove home the very real prospect that vital intelligence elements could lapse on June 1.
“There is no plan B,” White House spokesman Joshua Earnest acknowledged to reporters.