WASHINGTON — Since 2011, when Republicans took control of the House, Congress has lurched from one deadline to the next, as Republicans and Democrats have sparred bitterly over funding for the government, the ability to lift the debt ceiling and other policy matters.
But unlike those fights, the Senate’s showdown this weekend over the future of the government’s dragnet of American phone records is not the result of a partisan fracas. It is an ideological battle within the Republican Party, pitting the Senate majority leader against the speaker of the House and, in the Senate, newcomers against long-serving members, and defense hawks against a rising tide of younger, more libertarian-minded members often from Western states.
Senate leaders are expected to try to assemble a compromise surveillance bill on Sunday that can get the required votes to proceed before the authorizing law expires Monday. President Obama and his director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., added more pressure with sharp statements on Friday and Saturday calling for immediate approval of a House-passed surveillance bill.
“A small group of senators is standing in the way, and, unfortunately, some folks are trying to use this debate to score political points,” Mr. Obama said. “But this shouldn’t and can’t be about politics. This is a matter of national security.”
Even if a compromise can be reached in a rare Sunday session in the Senate, all signs point to at least a temporary expiration on Monday of a key section of the Patriot Act that the government has been using to sweep up vast amounts of telephone “metadata.”
Last month, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would overhaul the Patriot Act and curtail the metadata surveillance exposed by Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency. But in the Senate, that measure failed on a procedural vote this month, and efforts to pass a short-term extension collapsed under objections by three senators.
On Sunday, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, will try again. But opponents of a quick resolution, like Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, can easily force a delay.
“They can take things into the middle of the week,” said Representative Devin Nunes of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “This is very likely to go on for a few days.”
Over the congressional recess last week, Senate Republican leaders reached out to Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, to see if he would negotiate a compromise with Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman and a strong opponent of changes to current law. Mr. Goodlatte declined.
Mr. Paul signaled to political supporters that he intended to keep fighting.
“We fought a revolution over this,” he said at a Republican Party meeting on Friday in Rock Hill, S.C.
Several factors have combined to force the showdown. The revelations of the breadth of the program have increased voter distrust of it, members of Congress said. American companies have complained that foreign customers have been turned off by their products because of fears their privacy would be at risk if they purchased computers and cellphones made in the United States. Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans make up a growing alliance of members as concerned with civil liberties as national security.
“People who could not agree on anything have come together on this issue,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. “That has created a different dynamic in Congress, which has been so partisan over the last several years. These divisions are not along party lines. They are over something else entirely.”
Read more: NY Times