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The Senate's latest, best hope for NSA reform

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Senator Patrick Leahy has a plan to tame the surveillance state

Chuck Hagel / Flickr

NSA reform has been building steam for over a year now, but while the courts and even the White House have shown movement, Congress has struggled to come up with a meaningful bill. But that may change this week, as Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduces his version of the USA Freedom Act to the Senate. Even before the bill was public, it was hailed by the New York Times as "a breakthrough in the struggle against the growth of government surveillance power," and being named by reformers as congress's best hope for a meaningful response to NSA overreach.

"A breakthrough in the struggle against the growth of government surveillance power."

Looking at the bill itself, you can see why. The table of contents is a laundry list of the major NSA authorizations detailed in the Snowden leaks. Leahy's bill puts major restrictions on the FISA court, pen registers, and business records requests (the method used to collect bulk metadata from phone companies, among other things). It would also add new transparency measures to National Security Letter requests, allowing companies to report how many customers have been affected in more detail than ever before.

Still, the history of NSA legislation suggests Leahy may have a tough road ahead of him. The House version of the same bill, introduced by Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), started strong before being amended so thoroughly that many observers said the final version would do more harm than good. Leahy is betting the reforms will have better luck in the Senate, and there's reason to think he's right. Senators on both sides of the aisle have taken up the anti-surveillance cause, and groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology are hoping legislators will be able to strip out the amendments when they reconcile the two versions. It's also unclear whether President Obama would sign the legislation in its current form, having opposed many reform measures in the past. Still, there's a reason reformers are excited to have the bill on the Senate floor: if Leahy's proposal can make it into law, it could end up as the country's most meaningful check on NSA surveillance.