Political News

After unexpected scare, Senate overcomes filibuster and advances FISA extension bill

Posted January 16, 2018 5:09 p.m. EST

— In a surprisingly close vote, the Senate advanced legislation Tuesday that would keep in place a key electronic surveillance tool the government says it needs to track terrorists, barely overcoming objections from a bipartisan group of civil libertarian-focused senators who wanted to add changes to the bill.

By a vote of 60-38, the Senate defeated a filibuster of the bill that reauthorizes Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Senate now enters a 30-hour period of debate before holding a final vote later this week.

Section 702 allows the US government to collect communications, such as emails and phone records, of foreigners on foreign soil without a warrant. While the law targets non-US citizens, critics warn the government may incidentally monitor US citizens who are communicating with non-US citizens outside the United States.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats -- a former senator -- helped convince reluctant senators to back the bill, according to a GOP aide.

As he left the Senate, Coats chuckled with reporters and said the vote was almost as exciting as the Vikings-Saints playoff stunner this weekend.

"There was drama," he said with a smile.

Led by Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a bloc of senators wanted an amendment that would further reform the law and require a warrant for collection of any communications by a US citizen. Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy also authored legislation that reauthorizes and reforms Section 702. Their amendments were not brought up for a vote.

"We're called the world's most deliberative body, but we're not allowed to have any amendments?" Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said Tuesday at a news conference.

Critics of the bill needed at least 41 votes to stop the bill from moving forward.

Speaking on the Senate floor shortly before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged his colleagues to end debate on the bill, describing Section 702 as "one of the most important tools that our war fighters and intelligence professionals use to wage the war on terror and to keep Americans safe."

Last week, the House voted to reauthorize Section 702. The House also voted on an amendment that would add similar civil liberty reforms to the bill, but the amendment was defeated.

If the Senate passes the bill, it would next go to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.