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All Eyes On Senate As Patriot Act Provisions Set To Expire

Three key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire first thing Monday. One of those provisions, Section 215, which the White House uses to scoop up Americans' call records in bulk, has been incredibly controversial both legally and politically.

We went over the basics of all this in a separate post earlier this month, but wanted to check in on what's happened since then as the expiration date — and the Senate's rush to resolve this issue — get closer.

Here are three questions that will help you understand where everything stands:

1. Has there been any movement in Congress?

Not really. The same basic scenario holds true: The House has passed a measure that would outlaw the the National Security Agency's practice of collecting and storing certain telephone information about all phone calls made in and out of the United States. The bill, however, would allow the government to query phone companies for more specific data.

The Senate now has to pass that bill, because it simply won't have time to pass an extension of the three Patriot Act provisions as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested.

Of course, this is the Senate, so just one senator can keep this from happening.

Enter Sen. Rand Paul, who spoke against the Patriot Act for 10 hours on the floor of the Senate last week. Judging by his Twitter account, Paul doesn't seem to be backing down from his efforts to end the bulk collection program.

"I'm taking on the entire Washington Machine — from the White House on down on Sunday," Paul tweeted.

One superPAC supporting the Kentucky senator even released this "preview" of what they call "the biggest brawl for liberty of the century":

2. What does the White House say about all of this?

The White House approves of the House bill that ends bulk collection. They'd like to see that bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, passed. The White House also insists that letting the Patriot Act simply expire leaves the country in "uncharted territory."

On Friday, the president himself warned that if the act is allowed to expire, a dangerous gap in security could open up. "Heaven forbid we've got a problem where we could have prevented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who is engaged in dangerous activity, but we didn't do so simply because of inaction in the Senate," he said.

During an earlier briefing with reporters, one White House administration official said: "What you're doing, essentially, is you're playing national security Russian roulette. That's a game Congress can play, but we hope they won't."

Specifically, the administration officials said that if the parts of the Patriot Act expire, it doesn't allow the FBI, for example, to use "roving wiretaps." That's when the FBI identifies a person who is using multiple burner phones. Roving wiretaps allow them to target a person instead of a single phone number.

Without that Patriot Act provision, the White House argues, they would have to apply for a warrant to tap each phone number and that the process may be too slow.

NPR's David Welna spoke to Elizabeth Goitein with New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

"The Patriot Act didn't invent intelligence-gathering, it expanded it," she said. "So if the Patriot Act were to expire, we would go back to the somewhat narrower collection authorities that existed before."

3. So, what happens this weekend?

The statutory deadline is Monday, June 1. But senior administration officials said they have to begin winding down their surveillance programs at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday. That process, they said, could be aborted as late as 8 p.m. ET.

The Senate, however, is not scheduled to convene until 4 p.m. ET on Sunday.

Given the previous opposition, it's hard to imagine that the Senate will get to a vote on the House measure before 8 p.m. ET.

As David Welna reports: "Officials in the Obama administration say if those Patriot Act provisions do expire, they would lose important counterterrorism tools. Still, they appear resigned to seeing those legal authorities sunset at midnight Sunday for what they hope will be only a few days. Their assumption seems to be that this Republican-run Congress won't let these national security powers lapse for long on its watch."

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.