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Senate Advances USA Freedom Act, After Republican Leaders Fail To Amend Bill


A tense standoff in Congress over the government's surveillance powers came to a speedy end this afternoon. The Senate approved legislation already passed by the House to reinstate several spying provisions. But the new measure ends the government's ability to collect Americans' phone records in bulk. It's now headed to the White House for President Obama's signature. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The Senate today ran out the clock on the stalling tactics that Kentucky Republican and presidential contender Rand Paul had used to block a bill that would extend the lapsed powers. But even though Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined most other senators in voting to limit further debate, he made clear he was not happy with the bill passed by the House that ends the massive collection of Americans' calling records.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Before scrapping an effective system that has helped protect us from attack in favor of an untried one, we should at least work towards securing some modest degree of assurance that the new system can, in fact, actually work.

WELNA: McConnell's bid to place new restrictions on the so-called USA Freedom Act prompted that bill's supporters to rally in its defense. Ron Wyden is an Oregon Democrat.


RON WYDEN: We are now here because the majority leader wasn't able to defeat surveillance reform, so instead he has chosen to introduce amendments designed to water it down.

WELNA: And Minnesota Democrat Al Franken rejected McConnell's bid to double the length of a six-month phaseout of the bulk collection program to a full year.


AL FRANKEN: The attorney general and the Director of National Intelligence have told us that the USA Freedom Act is fine as it is. There simply isn't a problem in need of a solution here.

WELNA: All four of McConnell's proposed amendments were defeated. North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, was on the losing side. He warned that the country is worse off because former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed the bulk phone data collection program two years ago.


RICHARD BURR: It was not a public program until Eric Snowden (ph), a traitor to the United States, published a lot of information about what the intelligence community does. This was one small piece.

WELNA: As the Senate voted 67 to 32 to give final passage to the USA Freedom Act, Snowden spoke to an amnesty international gathering in London via a video link from his exile in Moscow. He touted his leaking of the bulk collection program as key to the changes in the Patriot Act now enacted by Congress.


EDWARD SNOWDEN: This was the first classified record or evidence we ever saw about mass surveillance. And I think it is meaningful. It's important and actually historic that this has been reputed, and not just by the courts but by Congress as well. And the president himself is saying that this mass surveillance program has to end.

WELNA: And it wasn't just Snowden who saw this saga in Washington as the fruit of his revelations. Majority Leader McConnell bitterly pointed out on the Senate floor what the Associated Press was calling today's vote.


MCCONNELL: A resounding victory for Edward Snowden. It is also a resounding victory for those who currently plotted against our homeland.

WELNA: And even though President Obama strongly supports ending the NSA's bulk collection program, his spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters that this is not a time to reassess the government's aim of prosecuting Snowden.


JOSH EARNEST: The fact is that Mr. Snowden committed very serious crimes, and the U.S. government and Department of Justice believe that he should face them.

WELNA: President Obama, meanwhile, tweeted that he's glad the Senate finally passed the USA Freedom Act. He said he'll sign it as soon as he gets it. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.