The US Senate passed landmark legislation Tuesday that ends the government’s bulk telephone data dragnet, reining in the most controversial surveillance program since the 9/11 attacks of 2001.
The House of Representatives has already passed the measure, which also reauthorizes key national security programs that had lapsed early this week.
With the Senate rejecting Republican attempts to modify the bill through three amendments, it now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.
“It’s a historic moment,” Senator Patrick Leahy, the senior Democratic sponsor of the bill, said after the 67-32 vote.
He described the bill, the USA Freedom Act, as “the first major overhaul of government surveillance laws in decades.”
The bill halts the National Security Agency’s ability to scoop up and store metadata — telephone numbers, dates and times of calls, but not the content — from millions of Americans who have no connection to terrorism.
It shifts responsibility for storing the data to telephone companies, allowing authorities to access the information only with a warrant from a secret counterterror court that identifies a specific person or group of people suspected of terror ties.
The vote follows days of sharp debate on the issue, with many Republicans split over their support for strong counterterror measures and the need for personal privacy protections in the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the bulk data dragnet in 2003.
The divisions, as well as delay tactics by Senator Rand Paul, a Republican 2016 presidential candidate, forced an expiration of the bulk data collection program and two other sections of the USA Patriot Act, roving wiretap and lone-wolf tracking authorities, all of which expired at midnight Sunday.
The legislation that passed Tuesday would reauthorize the latter two provisions.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who sought in vain to amend the bill by extending the transition period from six months to a year, among other changes, decried it as “a step backward.”