In a close vote, the Senate ends debate on warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens

On Tuesday, the Senate undertook a cloture vote to end debate on a bill that would renew a controversial legal loophole that provides U.S. intelligence agencies with a means for the warrantless surveillance of American citizens. With 60 for and 38 against, the Senate voted in favor of cloture, a considerable blow to privacy advocates who have long pushed for reform.

A two-thirds majority cloture vote of 60 is necessary to end a Senate filibuster. The vote ran for over an hour, slowing down considerably as the final votes trickled in and eventually slowing to a halt at 58-38.

The bill in question is known as S. 139 or the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017, a six-year reauthorization of Section 702. The bill, which renews an NSA surveillance program, cleared the House with little resistance last week in a 256-164 vote before making its way in front of the Senate. Following the House vote, Senators Rand Paul and Ron Wyden vowed to filibuster the Section 702 bill when it reached their chamber.

Leading into the vote, Wyden and Paul co-authored a letter rejecting the FISA bill as an “end-run on the Constitution.”

“To be clear, FISA’s purpose is to collect foreign intelligence, but without additional meaningful constraints, Congress is allowing the government to use information collected without a warrant against Americans in domestic court proceedings,” four Senators wrote.

Tuesday’s cloture vote was an attempt to sidestep the promised filibuster, which had five participants — three Democrats and two Republicans — on the day of the vote. Critics of the bill have urged support for the USA Rights Act, a surveillance reform-oriented alternative to the straight renewal of Section 702.

The Senate vote tightened in the evening hours, as the Senate’s privacy hawks worked to drum up support for further debate around the surveillance bill, opening the door for amendments that could limit the government’s ability to use the loophole to surveil American citizens without first obtaining a warrant. Unfortunately for privacy reformers and anti-surveillance lawmakers, the Senate just voted to close that door, moving a bill forward to extend Section 702 surveillance for six more years. A full vote on the bill, which is widely expected to pass, could happen as soon as mid-week.