U.S. Congress mulls days-long extension of surveillance plan

Reuters News
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Posted: May 19, 2015 10:30 AM

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress may deal with the June 1 expiration of a program allowing spy agencies to sweep up huge amounts of data about Americans' phone calls by extending it for just a few days, until after lawmakers return from an upcoming 10-day recess, lawmakers and congressional aides said on Tuesday.

Although both chambers are controlled by Republicans, leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate have been unable to agree on how to prevent the expiration of provisions of the USA Patriot Act that provide the legal basis for the collection of billions of telephone call records and other business information.

The program has been a deep concern for privacy advocates since it was exposed two years ago by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is now a fugitive in Russia.

There is strong support among Republicans and Democrats for extensive reform of the program, but few want it to expire. U.S. intelligence officials insist it is necessary to protect Americans.

The House addressed the issue last week by passing the USA Freedom Act, which ends bulk data collection but replaces it with a system of targeted information retrieval.

Democratic President Barack Obama has said he would sign the legislation if it is passed in the Senate.

But the measure has not been scheduled for a vote in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a few security hawks want to extend the Patriot Act provisions unchanged.

However, there is strong opposition in the Senate to any extension. A spokeswoman for Republican Senator Rand Paul, a 2016 presidential candidate, said Tuesday he would block even a two- or three-day extension.

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he might support an extension lasting for a few days, but would want a Senate vote on the Freedom Act after lawmakers return to Washington in early June.

"My sense is there's a majority in the Senate in support of the USA Freedom Act," Schiff told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner called on the Senate to take up the Freedom Act.

"The House had an overwhelmingly large vote for the USA Freedom Act. It's time for the Senate to act," Boehner told reporters, when asked whether he would rule out a short-term extension.

(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson and Richard Cowan; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)