Senate Republicans block broad NSA reform bill

Man talks on his phone, New York, N.Y.
Man talks on his phone, New York, N.Y.

Two more votes. That's all the Senate needed to move forward on a bill promoting broad reforms to the National Security Agency. But when the gavel fell on Tuesday evening, the procedural vote to advance the USA Freedom Act stood at 58-42. A 60-vote threshold was needed for it to pass.

The vote all but kills any chance that the full Congress will vote on this issue during the current legislative session.

The bill would have ended the mass collection of phone records by the secretive government organization, instead keeping much of that information in the hands of telephone companies. It also included reforms to the regulatory body that oversees NSA activity, known as the FISA court.

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The legislation, which was introduced in July, was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy. The Vermont Democrat was joined by a bipartisan group of cosponsors which included some of the Senate's most conservative Republicans like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, as well as some of the chamber's most liberal Democrats, including Ed Markey and Cory Booker.

"I am disappointed by tonight’s vote, but I am not new to this fight."'

The Senate's Republican leader, however, was a major force pushing to stop the bill. Speaking on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell said the legislation would "be tying our hands behind our backs." McConnell linked passage of the bill to the threat posed by ISIS. "If our aim is to degrade and destroy ISIL as the president said, it's going to require smart policies and firm determination," McConnell said.

Reacting to the bill's defeat, Leahy said in a statement, “I am disappointed by tonight’s vote, but I am not new to this fight," adding, "I have fought the status quo every step of the way in these efforts, but the broad coalition we have built in favor of the USA Freedom Act shows that we are gaining ground.”

Elizabeth Goiten, a co-director with the non-partisan, pro-democracy Brennan Center for Justice, called Tuesday's Senate vote "deeply disappointing." Goiten argued that a minority of senators ignored the will of a majority of Americans.

The NSA reform bill also had broad support from some of Silicon Valley's biggest players. Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and several others signed on to an open letter Sunday telling members of Congress "now is the time to move forward on meaningful change to our surveillance programs." In the letter, the tech giants said reform would bolster national security while "reaffirm[ing] America's commitment to the freedoms we all cherish."

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To the chagrin of the bill's opponents, its failure does not mean the issue will simply go away. Legislators now face a deadline of June 2015 when the provision of the Patriot Act which allows the NSA to collect phone data expires, The New York Times reported.