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The Senate just approved the USA Freedom Act. Here's what it does.

Sen Ron Wyden (D-OR) was a key supporter of the legislation.
Sen Ron Wyden (D-OR) was a key supporter of the legislation.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
  • The Senate today passed the USA Freedom Act in a 67-32 vote.
  • The legislation renews recently expired provisions of the Patriot Act while also increasing oversight of government spying activities.
  • Because the House approved the bill last month, it will go straight to President Obama's desk. He is expected to sign it.

USA Freedom renews Patriot Act powers while placing new limits on government spying

Congress has been under pressure to pass legislation because three provisions of the Patriot Act were scheduled to expire on May 31. The USA Freedom Act renews these powers in a more limited form and also contains other measures intended to rein in government surveillance on American soil.

Debate over the USA Freedom Act has focused on the collection of Americans' phone records by the National Security Agency. The USA Freedom Act creates a new, streamlined process for getting access to Americans' phone records, but it requires these requests to be focused on a specific "selector," such as a customer name or phone number. It explicitly prohibits the bulk collection of customer data.

The bill also takes steps to make the NSA's activities more transparent and accountable. Right now, when the government asks the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve surveillance activities, there is no one around to present opposing arguments. The USA Freedom Act changes that by creating several new positions for court-appointed public advocates who could participate in FISC proceedings.

The bill also requires the government to disclose significant FISC opinions (though the government could decline to publish them if it decides doing so would damage national security) and to publish detailed statistics about the extent of domestic spying activities.

The USA Freedom Act passed because surveillance hawks blinked

When the USA Freedom Act was first brought up for a Senate vote a couple of weeks ago, it got 57 votes, not enough to overcome a filibuster. A proposal from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a strong supporter of NSA spying authority, to renew the Patriot Act without changes got only 45 votes.

After a weeklong break, the Senate returned to further consider the issue on Sunday. After conferring with his Republican colleagues, McConnell concluded that accepting the limits of the USA Freedom Act was the only way to preserve the Patriot Act powers — albeit in weakened form. With McConnell no longer urging his caucus to vote against it, the Senate voted 77-17 to overcome a filibuster on Sunday.

Today, the Senate considered a series of amendments, most of which would have expanded the government's spying powers or weakened the legislation's transparency measures. Because all of these amendments were defeated, the Senate legislation is identical to the bill the House passed last month, allowing it to go straight to President Obama to sign, which he is expected to do.