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Senate debates Patriot Act surveillance as expiration nears

The Senate is in a rare Sunday session, wrangling over three key surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at midnight. PBS NewsHour's Political Director Lisa Desjardins joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington with more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The Senate is in a rare Sunday session tonight, wrangling over three key surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at midnight.

    The most controversial provision allows the NSA to collect and store Americans’ phone records.

    The House already passed a bipartisan measure, forcing the government to give up the mass data collection and have phone companies keep the records instead. But the Senate is locked in a standoff.

  • This afternoon, House Speaker John Boehner said:

    “Anyone who is satisfied with letting this critical intelligence capability go dark isn’t taking the terrorist threat seriously.”

    Even if a group of senators comes up with a viable bill in the next few hours, the Senate has to agree unanimously just to vote on it.

    Kentucky Senator Rand Paul says he’ll refuse to let that happen, saying Saturday he will “force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program.”

    Rand Paul’s tactics sparked criticism from Utah Senator Mike Lee this morning. Lee wants the Senate to pass the House version of the bill tonight.

  • SEN. MIKE LEE (R), Utah:

    I do believe we have the votes.

    And so, at this point, I think the question is not really about whether we will get this passed, but when.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Joining me now with the very latest on the Senate debate is the NewsHour’s political director, Lisa Desjardins.

    So, how did we get here? It has been a week. How did we get to this point?

  • LISA DESJARDINS, NEWSHOUR POLITICAL DIRECTOR:

    Right. This was a gamble by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a deadline game, if you will, Hari.

    Usually, the Senate, when it comes up to a deadline, especially one like last week, when they were on their way to vacation, the Senate usually does meet that deadline, if just by a few minutes.

    This time, however, they didn’t. And I think the difference, Hari, this time, is that, when the — these provisions were last authorized by Congress was 2011.

    Since that time, we have seen Edward Snowden make his revelations about what exactly these programs have been doing.

    And just in the past few months, we have had a federal court rule against them. So, this idea of kind of taking something like a report to your boss on deadline and getting them to sign off, which sometimes Congress has done, didn’t work this time, because, really, the game has changed, our knowledge has changed, and opinions have changed about these programs since they were last authorized.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Well, what are the options on the table heading into tonight?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Well, there were two options that the Senate actually voted on. One was just a two-month extension, basically, keep the programs running exactly as is and try and discuss what to do next.

    That is sort of a classic option for the Senate, but that really didn’t get very many votes.

    But what did almost get enough votes was a revision of the phone data collection program. This idea passed the House overwhelmingly, and it got 57 votes in the Senate.

    I don’t want to get too much into numbers, but that is — that is really important, because it is just three votes short of what it needed.

    So this idea of revising the Patriot Act would make it so that the government had to take its hands off completely all of the phone metadata.

    The numbers you and I call, for example, that the government now has clear access to, the government no longer would be able to see.

    Instead, the government, under this USA Freedom Act, would have to get a court order. And they would have to ask our telephone company or our telecommunications company to have access to that data.

    The companies would be the ones that hold that data, not the government. It is a significant change. It almost had enough votes a week ago.

    And I think the thing is to watch as to whether reform-minded senators are able to get three more people to jump on board with them in the next day, maybe few days.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, if those three senators get on board, does that mean that Senator Rand Paul, presidential candidate Rand Paul, will not be able to stop this single-handedly?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    He cannot ultimately stop this single-handedly, but he can delay it, so that we do expect these powers to expire tonight at midnight.

    Senator Paul has said in a statement that his campaign sent me that he will object to it. And, basically, that means that it will take days of process to get to a final vote. Any single senator has that ability.

    And, here, Rand Paul is using it. So he can’t stop a compromise, necessarily, but he can delay it, so that these powers would expire for at least a few days.

    So, then we get to the issue of, what will the compromise be? What will the Senate do? And the truth is, Hari, right now, we don’t know.

    So, while you and I are wondering exactly what our government will be able to do in surveillance, either on the security issue or liberty issue, many employees of the NSA are wondering just in the next few hours what they will be able to do as well for the next few days.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, one of the administration talking points throughout this week, really throughout the past couple of years, is how integral NSA intelligence has been to thwarting terrorism.

    If there is a lapse come midnight, who says how dangerous it is or how not so dangerous it is?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    The truth is that we have not gotten specifics on exactly what would happen.

    And it is possible that, honestly, the National Security Agency and the White House don’t know, they don’t know exactly how terrorists would be able to take advantage of this.

    They do think that terrorists are aware of this debate, they are aware that some powers may expire tonight.

    I think the program to pay the most attention to, Hari, is not the controversial phone metadata one, but instead one that is called roving wiretaps.

    And that’s the power that allows our government to track terror suspects when they change phones. You are tracking the suspect, and not the phone.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Sure.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And almost everyone in the national security industry says that is a paramount and important power.

    But it would expire along with the other two in this because of the more controversial one. And I think that’s the one they are the most nervous about.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, political director Lisa Desjardins of the NewsHour, joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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