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For the lame-duck session, add another bill to the Senate agenda that is very likely to consume valuable floor time: legislation extending provisions of a 2008 surveillance law that are set to expire at the end of the year.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has placed the bill (S 3276) on hold, meaning that the measure’s backers will probably have to go through a cumbersome floor process to overcome that hold unless they can persuade him to stop blocking the legislation.
But, aides said, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to move the bill. Intelligence officials in the Obama administration have deemed the extension measure their top legislative priority. The expiring provisions allow the federal government to conduct surveillance of foreign targets without individual court orders, even if those targets are communicating with people in the United States.
“We expect in the lame duck to complete the” extension, said an aide to the Intelligence Committee, which in June approved the bill, sponsored by Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “It needs to be done by the end of the year. The leader’s office knows this is must-pass legislation in the lame duck and that it may require some floor time. We’re arranging the details of how we’ll get it.”
A leadership aide added that “this is something we will almost certainly deal with during the lame duck.”
The 2008 law (PL 110-261) was the culmination of years worth of contentious congressional debate about President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program. It remains somewhat controversial. This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments to determine whether a group of journalists, lawyers and organizations can move forward with a legal challenge to the law.
Wyden placed a hold on the bill because he wants more information on how widely the government has swept up the communications of U.S. citizens and out of concern for whether the law could be abused to violate Americans’ privacy.
The director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., is the defendant in the lawsuit at the center of the Supreme Court case. He has pressed Congress to extend the expiring provisions of the 2008 law, itself an update of a 1978 law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“FISA allows us to collect vital information about international terrorists and their activities overseas,” said Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Clapper. “It has and continues to produce significant intelligence critical to the protection of our nation. Reauthorization is our top legislative priority.”
Feinstein has rejected fears that the surveillance authority has been abused, writing in a report on the bill that she was confident that there had been “relatively few incidents of non-compliance” with the law.