President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Obama began with commenting on flooding in Texas and calling on Senate to act on USA Freedom Act. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called on the Senate Tuesday to extend key Patriot Act provisions before they expire five days from now, including the government's ability to search Americans' phone records.
"This needs to get done," he told reporters in the Oval Office. "It's necessary to keep the American people safe and secure."
But with the May 31 deadline fast approaching, there was scant evidence Tuesday of a search for a deal on Capitol Hill. The House and Senate stood in recess for the week, and a House GOP leadership aide said there were no talks happening between the two chambers. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity, because the aide was not authorized to discuss the issue on the record.
The Senate adjourned for its Memorial Day break early Saturday after a chaotic late-night session during which senators failed to pass a White House-backed House bill reforming the phone collection program. Attempts by GOP leaders to extend current law also repeatedly fell short, amid objections from presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and others.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling the Senate back into session on Sunday, May 31, just hours before the midnight deadline, but it's not clear lawmakers will have any new solution.
Back home in Kentucky on Tuesday, McConnell offered no hint of how the impasse might be resolved.
"This is a very big issue that people are divided on. That's what we do. So we're going to work it out in some way and go forward. But there are deep differences of opinion," McConnell told reporters after addressing the Elizabethtown Rotary Club. "We've got to figure some way out of this."
The House bill, which passed by a wide bipartisan margin, was just a few votes short in the Senate Friday, and House Republicans appear content to hold off on a search for compromise in hopes that pressure will increase on McConnell to accept their bill or see the Patriot Act programs lapse.
McConnell complained that the House bill waters down the bulk collection program that now exists, but acknowledged, "they passed it by a very large margin. So that makes it pretty challenging to extend the law as it is."
A few hours earlier at the White House, Obama addressed reporters after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
"The Senate did not act, and the problem we have now is that those authorities run out at midnight Sunday. I strongly urge the Senate to work through this recess to make sure they identify a way to get things done," he said.
Obama noted that the controversial bulk phone collections program, which was exposed by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, is reformed in the House bill, which does away with it over six months and instead gives phone companies the responsibility of maintaining phone records that the government can search.
But the legislation also includes other tools used by the FBI, including one that makes it easier to track "lone wolf" terrorism suspects who have no connection to a foreign power, and another that allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who continuously discard their cellphones.
FBI Director James Comey said at a news conference at the bureau's New Haven, Connecticut, field office on Tuesday that the FBI will be affected in profound and important ways if the provisions are not renewed.
"I sure hope Congress figures out a way to make sure I don't lose these essential tools," Comey said.
Paul was unapologetic about his role in defying fellow Kentuckian McConnell, despite criticism that he's used the issue to raise money. Paul sent out fundraising appeals after holding the Senate floor for nearly 11 hours last week in what he billed as a filibuster.
"I think I'm right in line with what the founders would have fought for, and I'm proud of the fight," Paul said on CBS' "This Morning."
As for his relationship with McConnell, who has endorsed his presidential bid, Paul said: "I don't think we need counseling yet."
For his part, McConnell said: "This is not personal. Rand and I have a good relationship. We just have a difference of opinion on this issue. It's not a small issue."
Associated Press writer Adam Beam in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Michael Melia in New Haven, Connecticut, and Jim Kuhnhenn and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
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