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White House slams Senate over lapse in spy provisions

The White House has labeled the US Senate "irresponsible" over its failure to prevent contested counterterrorism provisions, including the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, from expiring.

The White House has criticized the Senate's failure to produce an 11th-hour deal that would stop key post-September 11 anti-terrorist provisions from lapsing. Lawmakers met for an extraordinary session on Sunday in an attempt to find a solution.

As a result, a National Security Agency (NSA) program allowing the bulk collection of Americans' phone records expired at the stroke of midnight on Monday (0400 UTC), along with two lesser-known provisions.

"We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible," said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

"On a matter as critical as our national security, individual senators must put aside their partisan motivations and act swiftly. The American people deserve nothing less," he added.

Opposition to extending the key USA Patriot Act provisions has primarily come from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential election. He has made good on earlier promises and blocked the chamber from advancing a solution.

"The Patriot Act will expire tonight," said Paul on Sunday. Sixty of the Senate's 100 votes are required for either an extension to the present rules or a new bill, the USA Freedom Act, which has already passed the House of Representatives.

The proposed Freedom Act would replace three key surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act. That includes scaling back the NSA's powers, and forcing it to stop the telephone data program - which collects the records of millions of Americans, most of whom have no connection to terrorist activities.

Earlier this month, a Manhattan court judge ruled the practice illegal, but stopped short of ordering the NSA to cease such surveillance, as the Patriot Act was set to expire weeks later.

The Freedom Act, which has passed the House of Representatives, would extend the existing surveillance program for six months while the new system gets up and running.

Lapse likely to be temporary

Sunday's meeting was called by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Lawmakers voted 77-17 to move ahead on the Freedom Act, but failed to get it over the line.

Paul served notice that he would assert his prerogative, under Senate rules, to delay a vote for several days.

But the lapse is likely to be only temporary. Senate rules mean it will probably be the middle of the week before the chamber can vote on whether or not to pass the Freedom Act.

Paul did acknowledge after the procedural vote: "This bill will ultimately pass."

The NSA program had been secret until it was made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden almost two years ago. The revelations caused an uproar in Germany, particularly the news that the NSA had tapped the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It was revealed recently that Germany's BND federal intelligence service had helped the NSA spy on European officials, agencies and individuals.

Merkel's coalition partners, the Social Democrats, have called on the chancellery to release information on filters, or selectors, such as metadata and search terms used by the agencies in their espionage.

jr/cmk (AFP, AP, Reuters)