Members of Congress are frequently told to hold their noses and vote for something, to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was having none of that Tuesday.
Minutes before being rebuked by the chamber, which shot down his preferred amendments to the USA Freedom Act and then overwhelmingly passed it, 67-32, the Kentucky Republican went to great lengths to spell out just how bad a bill it was. "Nobody's civil liberties are being violated here," McConnell said, referring to the now-expired Section 215 provisions of the Patriot Act that provided the National Security Agency its authority for bulk phone data collection.
"The president's campaign to destroy the tools used to prevent another terrorist attack has been aided by those seeking to prosecute officers in the intelligence community, diminish our military capabilities and despicably to leak and reveal classified information, putting our nation further at risk," he said.
If those listening didn't get the hint, McConnell spelled it out shortly after, calling the bill "a resounding victory for Edward Snowden. It is also a resounding victory for those who are currently plotting against our homeland."
It is unusual for a Senate majority leader to vote against a bill that passes his chamber and heads to the president to be signed into law. It is even more unusual for that Senate majority leader to disparage that bill, effectively calling out fellow senators for their votes for aiding America's enemies.
Among those voting for the bill that would change the way the NSA collects phone records were McConnell's top lieutenant, Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. That group also included two of the chamber's most conservative senators, James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and David Vitter, R-La., plus two favorites of the tea party, Mike Lee, R-Utah, the bill's primary sponsor, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a presidential candidate.
In all, 23 GOP senators voted for the measure, while 30 voted against it. One, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, did not vote, but tweeted he would have voted no.
Graham on Monday became the latest GOP senator to launch a presidential campaign, touting his national security credentials.
Minority Leader Harry Reid was only too happy to remind McConnell he was also lumping in Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and the 338 members of the House, including 196 Republicans, who voted for the bill in that chamber. Left unsaid was that 23 of McConnell's fellow Senate Republicans voted for what he referred to as the "so-called USA Freedom Act," along with 196 House Republicans who voted for it on May 13.
"Is he criticizing the speaker? For working hard ... to get this bill reauthorized in a fashion that the American people accept? Because his criticism here today is not directed to people who voted here today. It's directed to the bipartisan efforts in the House of Representatives who passes this bill overwhelmingly, 338 votes. One of the few bipartisan things they've done over there, and they did it for the security of this nation," Reid said.
McConnell wasn't amused. "It appears the votes are probably there to pass this bill and it will go to the president, and I still think it's a step backward from where we are," he said. Then he yielded the floor and the vote started.
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., often referred to the job of majority leader as herding cats, and it even provided him with the name of his memoir: "Herding Cats: A Life in Politics." One of the few absolute authorities the majority leader has is scheduling legislation.
Perhaps unintentionally highlighting the awkward position he was in, McConnell sent a withering rejoinder to Reid that he was the man responsible for the Senate's schedule now. "As my good friend ... frequently reminded me over the last few years, the majority leader always gets the last word. And look, his fundamental complaint is he doesn't get to schedule the Senate anymore," McConnell said after Reid's comments.
The retort might have been designed to cut Reid to the quick, but it also underscored that McConnell was in charge of the schedule. Tuesday's votes ended an episode in the Senate that resulted in the temporary lapsing of surveillance authorities that McConnell argued were vital to national security. And the coda was him losing in big fashion Tuesday afternoon on the floor, while his bitter rival, Reid, rubbed it in.
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