John Boehner is taking a wait-and-see approach on the domestic-surveillance legislation that has derailed the Senate's Memorial Day weekend plans, and he's not closing the door on a possible "clean" renewal of the Patriot Act.
Key provisions of the Patriot Act that the National Security Agency uses to justify its mass collection of U.S. phone records are set to expire in a few days, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled procedural votes on two bills this weekend to deal with it. The first measure is the USA Freedom Act, which the House easily passed last week and would end the NSA's collection of U.S. call data. The second measure would provide a two-month extension for Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and buys lawmakers more time on NSA reform, which has split some Senate Republicans.
"The House has acted," Boehner said Thursday during a press briefing, after McConnell's office announced the weekend votes. "Time for the Senate to act. If they act, we'll certainly look at what they do and make a decision about how to proceed."
It's not clear, however, if the House would even be able to vote on a short-term extension before hitting the June 1 deadline. The House is due to head out of town on Friday, and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee insisted in a statement Thursday that the "only path forward" without letting Section 215 of the Patriot Act expire is for the Senate to pass the Freedom Act.
McConnell has said leadership doesn't have the votes to advance the House bill, whose previous iteration failed in the upper chamber last year. However, some senators seemed to be coming around to the idea on Thursday, including Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida, who both opposed the measure last November. Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul spent 10-and-a-half hours on the floor Wednesday railing against both a clean extension of the Patriot Act and the USA Freedom Act.
"I do think that there's a big disconnect in terms of how they view our bill," Boehner said Thursday of the Senate. "And uh, I've been surprised by it, but at the end of the day we've got to work our way through this issue. I'm confident at some point we will."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday placed the blame on the Senate for the last-minute debate over NSA programs, and criticized the chamber for considering a short-term extension.
"I think they should face reality and come up with a bill," she said. "Why are we having a two-month delay? Is this a surprise to anybody over there that this is happening?"
In a rare instance of agreement with Boehner, Pelosi called on the Senate to move quickly on the House-passed bill.
"What part of it don't they like?" she said. "Write your own bill or amend it or do something and go to conference."
As the Senate considers its next move, the Obama administration is preparing the NSA for an expiration of the Patriot Act provisions in question. The Justice Department said Wednesday that officials need to start winding down the intelligence agency's bulk collection program on Friday to make sure operations are completely shut down by June 1.