NSA spying powers on brink of lapsing

The National Security Agency’s power to collect Americans’ phone records is on the verge of at least temporarily expiring, as the House of Representatives left Thursday for a 10-day Memorial Day break without an agreement on the controversial issue with a sharply divided Senate.

The House last week overwhelmingly passed a bill that would change the NSA data collection program while renewing less controversial provisions in the Patriot Act, and it says the Senate needs to decide what to do.

“The House has acted. It’s time for the Senate to act,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday before the House left for the break.

But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said Thursday he doesn’t think there are the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to move forward on the House bill or a two-month extension of the NSA’s current powers being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he isn’t sure if the votes are going to fail.

“Nobody wants us to go dark on our ability to detect terrorist activity,” Cornyn said.

The votes are likely to happen in the Senate on Saturday, and Cornyn said that if they do fail, “I imagine there will be some very urgent discussions.”

The House left for its Memorial Day break and is not scheduled to return until June 1. NSA spying provisions will expire at midnight on May 31 unless Congress acts.

If the Senate can pass a short-term renewal the surveillance powers might expire for just a few hours, until the House returns the morning of June 1 and takes up the renewal.

The Senate is supposed to leave this weekend for its own week-long break, complicating matters as senators press to get out of town. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the situation is fluid. Efforts are ongoing to strike a deal between the House and Senate on the Patriot Act renewal.

“I think it’s a real problem, but that the overwhelming majority know we just can’t let the program lapse and they’re searching around for different ways to prevent it,” he said. “Nobody wants (it to lapse) except maybe Senator Paul.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., launched a 10 1/2 hour speech on the Senate floor Wednesday night, saying the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records is an unconstitutional violation of the right to privacy.

He was joined by allies including Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who said it “doesn’t make sense to be pursuing approaches that don’t make us safer and compromise our liberties.”

Paul, who is running for president, said Thursday he plans to offer a series of amendments that would replace the Patriot Act renewal with “comprehensive surveillance reform,” including an end to the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.