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Senate To Vote On Patriot Act As Expiration Nears


Three counterterrorism powers in the USA Patriot Act will expire Sunday at midnight. That's unless the Senate passes a bill that's already cleared the House. Senators are returning early from their Memorial Day recess to try to break the impasse, but as NPR's David Welna reports, there is little sign that they'll reach agreement.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It's been a week since the Senate fell three votes shy of the 60 needed to advance the USA Freedom Act. The House passed that bill overwhelmingly. It extends the three expiring Patriot Act provisions another four years but stops the National Security Agency's massive collection of Americans' phone records. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voted against taking up that bill. Still, the Kentucky Republican told Senators leaving town to come back Sunday afternoon for a last-ditch stab at saving the sun-setting provisions.


MITCH MCCONNELL: My colleagues, do we really want this law to expire? We've got a week to discuss it. We'll have one day to do it.

WELNA: Today at the White House, President Obama repeated his calls for the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act just as the House has. He emphasized that on Sunday at midnight those Patriot Act authorities are set to expire.


BARACK OBAMA: I don't want us to be in a situation in which, for a certain period of time, those authorities go away and suddenly we're dark, and heaven forbid, we've got a problem where we could have prevented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who was engaged in dangerous activity but we didn't do so simply because of inaction in the Senate.

WELNA: It takes just a single senator's objection to gum up the works in the Senate, and playing that role in this standoff is the other Kentucky Republican, presidential contender Rand Paul. After repeatedly objecting last week to short-term extensions of the expiring provisions, Paul told CBS this week he still hoped the Senate would bend to his demands.


RAND PAUL: I'm not being unreasonable. I'm just asking for two amendments and a simple majority vote. I would like to have a vote on ending the bulk collection.

WELNA: Paul has said he wants the Patriot Act provisions to expire. It's a stance shared by today's New York Times editorial page, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union. Neema Singh Guliani is that organization's legislative counsel.

NEEMA SINGH GULIANI: Our position is, at the time, it's ripe right now to simply let those provisions expire to do away with programs that have violated the rights of every single American.

WELNA: Other civil liberties advocates scoff at the Obama administration's warnings about the perils of letting the Patriot Act provisions expire. Elizabeth Goitein is with New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

ELIZABETH GOITEIN: The Patriot Act didn't invent intelligence gathering. It expanded it. So if the Patriot Act were to expire, we would go back to the somewhat narrower collection authorities that existed before.

WELNA: Officials in the Obama administration say if those Patriot Act provisions do expire, they would lose important counterterrorism tools. Still, they appear resigned to seeing those legal authorities sunset at midnight on Sunday for what they hope will be only a few days. Their assumption seems to be that this Republican-run Congress won't let these national security powers lapse for long on its watch. But the only way to avert such a lapse is if the Senate on Sunday evening approves the same bill passed by the House. Unless both Kentucky senators drop their opposition, that likely won't happen. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.