Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

USA Patriot Act Faces Midnight Expiration Deadline


It is showdown Sunday in the United States Senate. Before leaving town for Memorial Day break, senators failed to agree on a way to keep three counterterrorism measures in the USA Patriot Act from expiring at midnight. So they're coming back this afternoon for a last ditch effort to keep those provisions alive. The biggest issue - the fate of the National Security Agency's practice of collecting the phone records of millions of Americans. Joining me on the line to talk about what's at stake in this 11th hour drama and just how it might play out is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Good morning, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So what does the Senate have to do today to prevent those three Patriot Act provisions from lapsing at midnight?

WELNA: Well, you know, there's really only one thing it can do to keep that from happening, and that's pass the same bill the House overwhelmingly passed earlier this month to extend these provisions. It's called the USA Freedom Act, and while it prolongs those measures another four years, it forbids any more of the so-called bulk collection of phone records that Edward Snowden exposed two years ago. But as you mentioned, before senators left town, they fell three votes short of the 60 needed to take up that bill. They'll try again today to break a GOP-led filibuster.

WERTHEIMER: So what do you think the odds are that they'll get it done this time?

WELNA: Not so good. Even if there are enough votes to end the filibuster, that bill still has many other procedural hurdles to cross before the Cinderella hour of midnight when the provisions die. And the biggest obstacle for expediting things is Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and presidential contender. His super PAC just released an ad featuring a shirtless muscle-bound Paul look-alike with a flaming U.S. flag backdrop, and it promises - in pro wrestling style - a real fight today.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Sunday, Sunday, Sunday - get ready, America, for the biggest brawl for liberty of the century when the biggest rivals go head-to-head. Defender of freedom, Senator Rand Paul...

WELNA: Paul issued a statement yesterday promising he'll force the expiration of the Patriot Act provisions today. And he can easily do that simply by not agreeing to cut off debate.

WERTHEIMER: It's something so serious to be talked about in quite those tones is amazing. What powers would the government be losing if the three provisions do expire?

WELNA: Well, one of them called section 215 lets the government collect the business records of suspected terrorists with a court order. That's the same provision the NSA has used to carry out bulk collection of people's phone records. Another is the roving wiretap which allows authorities to listen in on whatever phone a suspect happens to be using, and the third is the so-called lone wolf provision which is for tracking suspected terrorists with no known ties to foreign powers or organizations.

WERTHEIMER: Are Republican leaders likely to fold their tents and give up if it doesn't happen tonight?

WELNA: I don't think so. The House majority leader has already put members of his chamber on notice that they may have to take up this issue again. They'd have to do that if the Senate eventually passes anything different from what the House passed. And it looks all but certain the Senate will have to pass some compromise to revive these three provisions since all three appear likely to expire, at least temporarily, at midnight. What we really have here is a fight not just between Rand Paul the rest of the Senate but a huge divide among Senate and House Republicans over whether it's really a good idea to bar the NSA from collecting everyone's phone data.

WERTHEIMER: David Welna will be watching the Senate session today. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.