The Senate on Tuesday night voted down a proposal to consider a bipartisan bill aimed at reining in the authority of the National Security Agency to collect bulk phone data from millions of Americans, an activity that was revealed after leaker Edward Snowden revealed the program last year.
Senate Judiciary Committee Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) proposed the bill in July as one of a handful of alternatives for dealing with the problem that outraged most Americans.
But while most members of Congress agree that something needs to change, there is no clear agreement on what changes to make. Senate debate on Tuesday made it clear that most Republicans think the bill goes too far in limiting intelligence-gathering activities.
As a result, the Senate voted down the Democratic proposal to move ahead with the bill. Sixty votes were needed to proceed to the legislation, but the Senate voted 58-42 — all of the "no" votes came from Republicans.
Under the legislation, the NSA would no longer be able to collect bulk phone data from Americans, and would ensure that only phone companies can hold this data. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said certain elements of the bill go too far, and warned against shutting off certain activities just as the U.S. is trying to fight the Islamic State.
"This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs," McConnell said. "The threat from ISIL is real. It's different from what we faced before."
Specifically, McConnell said the bill goes too far by allowing phone companies to hold data, and give them the option of not storing data at all. He said those changes would make it harder for intelligence officials to request and examine data that might be used to connect people to terrorists.
"Most damagingly, it would hinder the ability of intelligence community analysts to query a database to determine links between potential terrorists," he said.
But the bill was supported by other Republicans who are worried about the government infringing on people's right to privacy. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said that while the bill may not be perfect, the Senate should have supported it to allow possible amendments to be considered.
"This legislation protects the constitutional rights of privacy under the Fourth Amendment while maintaining important tools to protection national security and law enforcement," he said. "This is bipartisan legislation that enjoys support of the intelligence community, and also the tech community."
"[I]t is imperative that we stand together united in protecting the Bill of Rights," he added.
While the vote kills the bill in the Senate, it's possible the GOP-led Senate could bring up a different version of the bill next year. McConnell indicated Tuesday that one of his problems with the legislation today is that it was rushed to the floor without first being amended and approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The vote came shortly after most Democrats voted against legislation to approve the Keystone pipeline.