Congressional negotiators are scrambling over the Memorial Day recess to rustle up the votes required to pass legislation to rein in the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records but preserve the government's domestic surveillance program. This race against the clock would never have become necessary — and shouldn't have — but for a group of senators intent on scuttling sensible legislation authored by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).
Sensenbrenner's USA Freedom Act would end the government's massive eavesdropping program revealed two years ago by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. His bill overwhelmingly passed the House but fell three votes short of the 60 needed for passage last week in the Senate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose hours-long monologue on Friday made passage impossible, wants to go farther: He has vowed to block reauthorization of the bill until the Senate votes to end the section of the Patriot Act used by the NSA to justify the dragnet of phone records.
But Paul, a presidential candidate who has used his filibustering to raise funds for his campaign, is wrong. The better course (though less lucrative for his campaign) would have been simple support for Sensenbrenner's bill.
It strengthens privacy and civil liberty protection, but still gives intelligence authorities the tools they need to protect Americans. The bill would not allow the NSA to sweep up records as it has done in the past but would require phone companies to hold the records, which the NSA could access with a search warrant.
The Patriot Act's Section 215 expires Monday, which forced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to call for a rare Sunday session this week for a vote on any compromise deal. The House also may have to act on Sunday.
As with too many issues in the nation's Capitol, a handful of lawmakers are holding up a very good bill that solves a problem. We agree with U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee:
"This whole argument is just a circus act, and it's just unfortunate," he said. "We've wasted a considerable amount of legislative time, both in the House and the Senate, on something that is really trivial. This is a program that is very important but very seldom used."
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