Signal Strength for Reforming Surveillance Programs: Low

Michael Catalini
National Journal

If the congressional debate over the government's secret surveillance programs were an Internet connectivity signal, the bandwidth would be low.

Abuzz with news that the House GOP failed to pass its farm bill and that Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., had hammered out a border-security amendment, the Capitol shifted its attention away from the National Security Agency's intelligence collection methods.

One did not have to look very hard on Thursday to see just how diverted lawmakers' attention was. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had vowed in a Wednesday hearing to reintroduce on Thursday legislation reining in some of the surveillance powers, but his staff said that might have to wait until Friday or Monday.

"So much going on," Leahy spokeswoman Jessica Brady said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, cosponsored a bill with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and others that would require specific evidence for the government to access business records. But the immigration debate seized Lee's attention. After attending a Tea Party Patriots event outside the Senate, he headed for the Senate floor. Asked whether he thought there was enough support for the bill to clear committee and come for a vote on the floor, Lee, said he'd "be happy to talk about" it, but didn't have time just then.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who voted against extended surveillance powers in December, tamped down expectations in a recent interview with National Journal Daily.

"I don't see a freight train coming down the track," he said.

Rolling back some of the surveillance powers contained in the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act looks to be a long shot, with leaders in both chambers decrying Edward Snowden's leaks, but a corps of a half-dozen senators and some in the House have proposed legislation including opening the secret court's opinions and requiring stronger access to businesses records.

Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the Senate's chief critics of surveillance, would not say whether he thought measures he cosponsored with Udall would make it to the floor for a vote, but he stressed he thought most of his constituents would take exception to the part of the law that permits collecting phone records.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sounded a critical tone when asked to assess the chances Udall's legislation could survive to a floor vote.

"I'm not happy about that [bill]," Rockefeller said. "I'd just love someone to point to me some person whose rights have been violated," he said.