The U.S. House of Representatives votes to end the Obama administration’s domestic phone spying program; Senate Democrats blocked a broad trade bill considered to be a centerpiece of the Obama legacy.
COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
WASHINGTON – This week, President Obama couldn’t win for losing.
On Tuesday, Obama’s bid for a sweeping Pacific trade deal was dealt a stinging blow by lawmakers in his own party when Senate Democrats successfully filibustered a White House-backed measure to give Obama the authority he said he needs to complete the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
On Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill to dial back the once-secret National Security Agency program that collects and stores data from nearly every phone call or cellphone call dialed or received in the United States.
Short in Senate
Tuesday’s 52-45 vote in favor of a bill on trade-promotion authority for the president fell short of the 60 votes needed to break the Democratic filibuster. The fast-track measure would let Obama submit a trade agreement to Congress with the assurance that lawmakers must approve or reject it with no amendments.
The Obama administration said fast-track authority is necessary to complete negotiations with Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and eight other countries for what would be the biggest trade pact in American history.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership involves nations that make up about 40 percent of the world economy.
Obama has staked part of his legacy on the accord, aimed at eliminating tariffs and other barriers and establishing high-standard rules on e-commerce, intellectual property and other areas of trade and investment.
Many Democratic lawmakers have criticized the secrecy in negotiations and fear that the trade deal will not deliver the kinds of benefits to American workers or provide the level of labor and environmental protections that the administration has promised it would.
Underscoring the divisive and unpredictable nature of trade politics, a handful of pro-trade Democrats came out against the motion just ahead of the vote, siding with Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and others who insisted that the fast-track bill be packaged with measures aiding workers hurt by trade and preventing countries from manipulating their currencies to gain an economic advantage.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaking moments before the vote, vowed that the “issue’s not over.” He is expected to try again in the days ahead. Business groups roundly expressed disappointment with Tuesday’s vote.
Obama’s prospects for winning fast-track authority – and ultimately the Pacific trade deal – are still thought to be better in the Senate than in the House, where many conservative Republicans are wary of helping a president they oppose achieve a victory on a landmark accord.
One line of argument that the White House has employed in its heavy lobbying is that public opinion is on the administration’s side.
Surveys from several research and news organizations show that significantly more Democrats today see “free trade” as positive, at least in theory. In a Gallup poll in February, 61 percent of Democrats viewed trade as an opportunity rather than a threat, up from 47 percent in 2011 and 10 percentage points higher than Republicans.
Such results have “really scrambled the conventional thinking about what rank-and-file Democrats think about this issue,” said Patrick Egan, an associate professor of politics and public policy at New York University.
The House bill restricting phone spying passed 338-88, with both Democratic and Republican majorities determined to rein in a domestic intelligence program that sparked sharp concerns in Congress about violations of privacy and civil liberties.
The House bill faces a hurdle in the Senate, however, where GOP leaders are backing a bill to renew the controversial NSA program through 2020 either unchanged or with minor amendments.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has said he will filibuster if the Senate is asked to renew the bill without changes. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., another opponent, has vowed to filibuster as well.
“The overwhelming vote in the House should send a strong signal to Senate Republican leaders that momentum is on the side of surveillance reform,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said legislation to stop the NSA from bulk collection of phone data “is trying to fix a system that isn’t broken.”
“As terror groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida grow in number, capability and technical sophistication, now is not the time to turn to an untested, unproven proposal as the House has done today,” Burr added.
Court order necessary
The House bill would leave customers’ toll records with telephone companies, not the NSA. The government would need a court order to access specific records for terrorism or espionage investigations.
The Obama administration backed the House bill, but only as a compromise that preserves the government’s ability to track the communications of terrorism suspects and their contacts.
The dispute has taken on urgency because the provision in the USA Patriot Act used to justify the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records expires on June 1. If lawmakers fail to act by then, the program presumably will end.
Driving the debate was the decision last week by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the NSA had far exceeded its authority by collecting the call data of millions of people who were not specific targets. It did not order the program stopped, however, because of the likelihood of congressional action.
The House bill, called the USA Freedom Act, stops the NSA from storing domestic telephone toll records – the times, duration and numbers dialed or received of virtually every call.
Phone companies are required to keep customer toll records for at least 18 months under a Federal Communications Commission regulation. That rule will remain, so the NSA will have 18 months to seek permission from the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court to seek data held by companies.
The bill also creates a panel of independent advocates at the FISA court for the first time to argue on matters of privacy and civil liberties. The court, which meets in secret, now hears only from government lawyers.
Supporters of the House bill say it also would prohibit the NSA from indiscriminate collection on a smaller scale, such as requests for all calling records from a city, state or ZIP code.
It also allows companies and individuals, for the first time, to challenge the gag orders that routinely come with data demands from the government under so-called national security letters.
The administration has always argued that the bulk collection of phone data, which began under President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is legal.
But a public outcry forced Obama to call for moving the records out of government control after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the program’s existence in 2013.
If the House bill becomes law, it would mark the most sweeping change to emerge as a result of Snowden’s leaks.
Brian Bennett, Don Lee and Lisa Mascaro of the Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS) all contributed to this report.