A decision by a federal appeals court that the government went too far by collecting phone data on millions of Americans has emboldened members of Congress who are seeking to end that program once and for all.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals said Thursday that the program goes beyond what Congress authorized. The existence of the program was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, and the decision that it may violate the law led some to renew their calls to scale it back.
"The dragnet collection of Americans' phone records is unnecessary and ineffective, and now a federal appellate court has found that the program is illegal," Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a joint statement.
"Congress should not reauthorize a bulk collection program that the court has found to violate the law," they added. "We will not consent to any extension of this program."
These two senators have proposed the USA FREEDOM Act, which would end bulk collection of phone data and make other reforms to the USA PATRIOT Act. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act has been used to justify the phone data collection program, and it's one of a few provisions that will expire at the end of this month.
Lee and Leahy called on the House to pass the same bill, which the House Judiciary Committee approved just last week.
"The House is poised to pass the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 next week, and the Senate should do the same," they said.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) responded with their own statement agreeing that it's time to change the law.
"Today's federal appeals court ruling confirms what we've been saying all along: bulk collection of data is not authorized under the law and is not accepted by the American people," they said. "It also reaffirms that a straight reauthorization of the bulk collection program is not a choice for Congress."
They also called on the Senate to take up the House bill, assuming it passes. "The Senate should waste no time defending a program that has been ruled unlawful by the Second Circuit and take up this strong, bipartisan bill as soon as possible," they said.
A major hurdle to that goal, however, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's apparent support for extending Section 215. McConnell introduced a bill last month that would extend that section and others through 2020.
McConnell is not alone. Shortly after the court decision, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned that Congress should simply reauthorize the program because it has helped save lives.
"I hope that I'm wrong, but one day there will be an attack that's successful. And the first question out of everyone's mouth is going to be, why didn't we know about it?" he said.
"And the answer better not be, because this Congress failed to authorize a program that might have helped us know about it," Rubio added.
In a related development, Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a Senate subcommittee hearing on Thursday that her office is still examining the decision, but would continue to press for an extension of Section 215 in the meantime.
"We are reviewing that decision, but given the time issues involving the expiration of it, we're also and have been working with this body and others to look for ways to reauthorize Section 215 in a way that does preserve its efficacy and protect privacy," she said.