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Lawmakers Divided Over McConnell's Desire To Extend Surveillance Plan


Congress is deciding the conditions under which the National Security Agency can monitor your phone records.


It's a decision that has to be made soon. The government's authority to keep collecting the data expires June 1.

INSKEEP: And for the Senate, the deadline is sooner than that since lawmakers want to leave town by Memorial Day. That leaves them little time to address a controversy that erupted two years ago.

MONTAGNE: That's when Edward Snowden showed the government was collecting massive amounts of telephone records from Americans.

INSKEEP: For many in Congress, the question now is not how to ban this practice, but how to do it within the law. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: There's a phenomenon around the Capitol that often happens right before a Congressional recess - when stalemates dissolve and deals suddenly materialize just because lawmakers want to get on a plane and go home. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may just need some of that magic now after vowing the Senate will finish legislation on trade, highway funding and government surveillance programs, all by the end of the week.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Senators should know that I'm quite serious. I would advise against making any sort of travel arrangements until the path forward becomes clear.

CHANG: If McConnell has his way, the path forward on government surveillance is very clear and very fast. He wants to keep the program as is for five more years. But that is not going to fly with much of the chamber.


SENATOR RAND PAUL: You know, I think the Bill of Rights is a pretty important part of our Constitution and our heritage.

CHANG: For starters, McConnell's got to deal with the guys running for president, like Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, who's made the National Security Agency a signature issue. Paul's threatening to stop even a very short extension of the phone records program.


PAUL: I will filibuster unless there's an open-debate process and debate in amendments allowed.

CHANG: He's not the only one making this threat. And the problem is an open debate is not exactly what the Senate has time for this week. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy is hoping that time pressure will get his colleagues to settle on a middle ground between McConnell and Paul - a bill the House has already passed.


SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: We either pass the House bill or pass nothing because you don't have time to do anything other than that.

CHANG: Under the House measure, the NSA would no longer store the phone records. Instead, if the government wants the data, it would need a court order to get the records from phone companies. But even Senators who support this plan aren't totally sure those companies can be reliable partners. Here's Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California.


SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: There's some of us that are concerned as to whether the telecoms will hold the data for at least two years, and that's a - is an iffy thing. We just - we don't know for sure one way or another.

CHANG: And when the Senate doesn't know for sure what to do as it hurtles towards a deadline, it often reaches for the next best thing - it buys time. That could mean a short-term extension of the NSA program so senators can leave for their recess without delay and come back to deal with the hard part later. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.