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Congressional Battle Brews Over Bill To Extend NSA Data Collection


Nearly two years ago, Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, revealed a secret government program. The NSA's so-called bulk collection program gathers the phone records of millions of Americans and stores them for five years. It was authorized in the post-9/11 U.S.A. Patriot Act. That section of the Patriot Act is set to expire June 1, and there's a battle in Congress over whether the NSA program should end or be reauthorized. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Late Tuesday evening, the Senate chamber was nearly empty. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, was reading aloud a list of amendments and other actions to be voted on the next day. McConnell then paused and brought up a whole new order of business.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: I understand there's a bill at the desk, and I ask for its first reading.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The clerk will read the title of the bill for the first time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: S. 1035, a bill to extend authority relating to roving surveillance and so forth and for other purposes.

WELNA: It was a bill others had not seen, but word quickly spread about what McConnell intended for it to do. With his move, he could bypass the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees and bring that bill directly to the Senate floor for a vote. It extends every expiring provision in the Patriot Act, including the bulk collection of phone records, for five years. That angers Oregon's Ron Wyden, the number two Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.


SENATOR RON WYDEN: For the Senate Republican leadership to be talking about a business-as-usual domestic surveillance bill is, in my view, very troubling.

WELNA: Wyden calls the GOP proposal fundamentally flawed.


WYDEN: I think it flies in the face of the views of millions of Americans who believe that it's possible to have liberty and security. And this is going to be a challenging spring.

WELNA: Perhaps even more so because the cosponsor of the bill extending bulk collection of phone records for another five years is the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, North Carolina's Richard Burr. When asked why he's backing a bill that bypasses his own committee, Burr downplays its significance.

SENATOR RICHARD BURR: Listen, I think all we're doing is framing the debate landscape.

WELNA: That landscape at the moment appears uncertain. Charles Grassley is the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says he's not ready to back the proposed extension of bulk collection.

SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: I've got to consult with both Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence committee. And then I'll make up my mind. That's going to take a while, though.

WELNA: There could be even more resistance to what McConnell's proposing in the House.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: There is, I think, a very sizable bipartisan majority that supports an end to bulk collection.

WELNA: That's California's Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He says members of both parties in the House are working on legislation that ends bulk collection.

SCHIFF: The public still wants its privacy respected and wants to make sure that any government program is constitutional, that it's effective and that it's structured in a way that minimizes any imposition on their privacy.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: I think sometimes we forget the enemy here is not the United States government. The enemy is the enemy.

WELNA: That's Oklahoma House Republican Tom Cole, a close ally of Speaker John Boehner. Cole does not want bulk collection to end.

COLE: This is a necessary protection. I'm quite willing for it to go through scrutiny by the appropriate committees and look at their recommendations. But at the end of the day, I do think it ought to be reauthorized. And we ought to move expeditiously and, I would hope, in a fairly unified fashion.

WELNA: But on this issue, such unity has yet to emerge. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.