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A Possible Path Forward on Patriot Act

Burr says the new surveillance bill is a marker for negotiations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As the Senate worked its way out of two legislative knots Wednesday, passing a human-trafficking bill, 99-0, and setting up a Thursday vote on the long-delayed nomination of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said the path to reauthorizing surveillance activities would be a lot easier if the White House engaged Congress sooner rather than later.  

"The White House usually keeps everything close to the vest until all of a sudden, you produce a piece of legislation and then they're open to share with you their problems with it," Sen. Richard M. Burr said. "I wish they'd adopt another strategy."  

The North Carolina Republican joined Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in introducing a bill late Tuesday that just might get an administration reaction. It would effectively extend the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, such as those related to bulk collection of phone and other records under the law's Section 215, through a prospective lame-duck session at the end of the next president's first term. Burr said that was a marker for negotiating. The authorization is set to lapse at the beginning of June.  

"We've got a June 1 deadline, so that gives you a pretty good idea of what the parameters are, and this is to help stimulate our members beginning to look at the issue, to understand what this program is and more importantly, understand its importance in our overall defense of the country. I'm sure that there will be changes," Burr said. "The administration reformed the process as much as they can from an executive branch [perspective]."  

Asked about the new McConnell-Burr offering Wednesday, White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters traveling with the president to an event in the Florida Everglades he hadn't yet seen reporting on it.  

"I do think it’s important to note that this is going to be something that requires bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans are going to have to work together on this," Schultz said. "I believe there’s a deadline in May, so we look forward to some earnest legislating."  

Finding a compromise will involve arriving somewhere between what was introduced in the Senate Tuesday evening and the legislation that fell two votes short of the magic 60 needed to overcome a first procedural hurdle in the chamber last November.  

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy spearheaded that bill as chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the time. The Vermont Democrat was quick to blast McConnell's new proposal  Tuesday.  

"Republican leaders should be working across the aisle on legislation that protects both our national security and Americans’ privacy rights, but instead they are trying to quietly pass a straight reauthorization of the bulk collection program that has been proven ineffective and unnecessary. And more, they are attempting to do so without the committee process that the Majority Leader has promised for important legislation," Leahy said in a statement. "This tone deaf attempt to pave the way for five and a half more years of unchecked surveillance will not succeed."  

McConnell has pledged to limit use of the Rule XIV procedure to short-circuit the committee process.  

In a brief interview with CQ Roll Call, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, one of the Senate's greatest skeptics of the intelligence community's bulk collection practices, said he would work to support efforts by Leahy to push back against the new bill. Wyden also warned against the combination of the surveillance reauthorization and new cybersecurity legislation that has moved through committee.  

Wyden was the only Intelligence Committee member to vote against the cybersecurity bill.  

"With cyber coming up, the combination that they want to continue business as usual on the Patriot Act and then have a cyber bill when we know we've got a threat, know we ought to be sharing information, but sharing information without strong privacy rules is a surveillance bill," Wyden said. "The combination of business as usual in the the area of, you know, 215 and a flawed cyber bill means that those of us who feel strongly about liberty, we've got our hands full the next few weeks."  

"Obviously, we've been stronger on some of these key issues in the House," Wyden said. "I feel very strongly, and I offered it on the cyber bill, that this idea of ... [requiring] the companies to build weaknesses into their products is a very, very bad idea, and they actually agreed in the House."  

"It steps all over the principle that we can have security and liberty. Now, on the good side, we got pretty darn close last year to being able to advance a plan that was more balanced, the Leahy proposal," Wyden said.  

After seeing McConnell's bill, the American Civil Liberties Union went so far as to call for Section 215 authorities to expire.  

"The Patriot Act has been at the root of many of the most serious abuses of government spying powers," Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. "We need to have a serious debate about the effectiveness of the Patriot Act and its implications for civil liberties. Until that happens, Congress should let Section 215 of the Patriot Act expire with the whimper it deserves."  

Burr said he understood there would have to be changes to advance legislation preserving the program.  

"I think it's safe to say there'll probably be a few additional reforms, but what the straight reauthorization does is creates the fence that the debate's going to happen within — probably somewhere between [House Judiciary Chairman Robert W.] Goodlatte and Leahy and the talked-about agreement they have and straight reauthorization. Somewhere in there is the finished product."  

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