Senate to consider renewal of surveillance laws

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is expected to vote on whether to extend three surveillance authorities as senators of both parties express concerns that the laws infringe on Americans’ rights.

The surveillance provisions expired in March, the month lawmakers fled Washington because of the coronavirus pandemic. House lawmakers passed a bipartisan compromise bill just before leaving town, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not yet been able to push the legislation through the Senate. And it’s unclear if he will be able to do so as he tries again on Thursday.

The House legislation also has the backing of President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The compromise would renew the three surveillance authorities and impose new restrictions to try and appease civil liberties advocates in both parties.

But the House legislation does not make enough changes for a bipartisan coalition of senators who have long sought to curb federal law enforcement’s ability to surveil. Two amendment votes on Wednesday won solid majorities of senators and complicated McConnell’s efforts to send the bill to the president’s desk for signature.

The expired provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allow the FBI to get a court order for business records in national security investigations, to conduct surveillance on a subject without establishing that they’re acting on behalf of an international terrorism organization, and to more easily continue eavesdropping on a subject who has switched cell phone providers to thwart detection.

Lacking enough support to pass the House measure, McConnell instead pushed through a simple extension of the surveillance laws in March. But Pelosi never took up that legislation in the House, and McConnell is trying again to pass the compromise House bill this week.

“The attorney general and members of Congress have worked together to craft a compromise solution that will implement needed reforms while preserving the core national security tools,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “These intense discussions have produced a strong bill that balances the need for accountability with our solemn obligation to protect our citizens and defend our homeland.”

McConnell urged senators to vote against three amendments to the bill, two of which came up for votes on Wednesday. He said the legislation was already a “delicate balance” and warned changing it could mean the underlying provisions won’t be renewed.

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