WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called on the Senate Tuesday to extend key Patriot Act provisions before they expire five days from now, including the government’s ability to search Americans’ phone records.
“This needs to get done,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. “It’s necessary to keep the American people safe and secure.”
But with the May 31 deadline approaching, there was scant evidence of a search for a deal on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The House and Senate stood in recess for the week, and a House GOP leadership aide said there were no talks happening between the two chambers. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the aide was not authorized to discuss the issue on the record.
The Senate adjourned for its recess early Saturday after a chaotic late-night session during which senators failed to pass a White House-backed House bill reforming the phone collection program. Attempts by GOP leaders to extend current law also fell short, amid objections and stalling techniques by presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and others.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling the Senate back into session on Sunday, May 31, just hours before the midnight deadline, but it’s not clear lawmakers will have any new solution. And with the House bill, which passed by a wide bipartisan margin, just a few votes short in the Senate, House Republicans appear content to hold off on a search for compromise in hopes that pressure will increase on McConnell to accept their bill or see the Patriot Act programs lapse.
“The Senate did not act and the problem we have now is that those authorities run out at midnight Sunday. I strongly urge the Senate to work through this recess to make sure they identify a way to get things done,” Obama said after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Obama noted that the controversial bulk phone collections program, which was exposed by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, is reformed in the House bill, which does away with it and instead gives phone companies the responsibility of maintaining phone records that the government can search.
But the legislation also includes other tools used by the FBI, including one that makes it easier to track “lone wolf” terrorism suspects who have no connection to a foreign power, and another allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who continuously discard their cellphones.
“Those also are at risk of lapsing, so this needs to get done,” Obama said.