After Rand Paul’s Objections, Patriot Act Lurches Toward Expiration (Updated)
Updated May 23, 2 a.m. | The Senate failed to advance even a one-day extension of the Patriot Act surveillance authorities early Saturday, with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., leading bipartisan objections to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in an extraordinary sequence.
The end result is that the Senate will reconvene for legislative business at 4 p.m. on May 31, staring down a midnight deadline to reauthorize the programs in question, including some far less contentious than the bulk data collection that’s gotten most of the attention.
“This week, I stood on the floor for roughly 11 hours in defense of the Fourth Amendment and successfully blocked the renewal of the Patriot Act. We should never give up our rights for a false sense of security,” Paul said in a statement. “This is only the beginning — the first step of many. I will continue to do all I can until this illegal government spying program is put to an end, once and for all.”
The Senate appeared to be lurching toward passing a short-term extension of existing surveillance authorities under the Patriot Act all day. But Paul had indicated on Twitter that he had other ideas.
“Will be seeing everyone overnight it seems. My filibuster continues to end NSA illegal spying,” Paul said. Shortly after that, McConnell said that unless there was a deal, the next votes would be at 1 a.m. Saturday.
After midnight, the Senate first blocked the House-passed and Obama administration backed USA Freedom Act, an overhaul bill that received 338 affirmative votes in the House, in a 57-42, three votes shy of the 60 needed to bring it up for debate, with McConnell leading the effort to kill it.
The Senate then voted to block a straight two-month extension backed by McConnell by an even wider margin, 45-54.
McConnell offered a series of consent agreements to pass ever-shorter extensions, with Paul first objecting unless the Senate would agree to two up-or-down votes on amendments. Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also joined in the objections. Exiting the building, Paul again told reporters he was seeking amendment votes.
“You know, we relied on the Constitution for about 200 years. I think we could rely on the Constitution again,” Paul said when asked if the existing programs could lapse come May 31.
An exasperated McConnell told the Senate he would bring the chamber back into session that day, in a last-ditch effort to pass an extension.
“Hopefully he’ll change his mind,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of Paul. “That’s why there’s the delay.”
“When I get back, I’m going to challenge his construct that the NSA and those who work there are more dangerous to our country than the al-Qaeda and ISIL threat The things he said on the floor about the program are absolutely outrageous,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Earlier in the day, senators said a desire to get home for the Memorial Day recess played a factor in the sequence of events. As Senate Republicans emerged from a special meeting of the conference Friday afternoon, they noted that agreeing to bring up the USA Freedom Act would lead to curtailing the recess and spending several days in Washington.
Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, one of the Republicans supporting the USA Freedom Act, had predicted it would fall, in no small part because of the smell of the recess jet fumes.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky. I hope we have the votes, but that argument about staying in all week certainly seems to trump all the reasonable arguments everybody else is making,” Heller said, adding that he was undecided about objecting to moving a short-term extension of the Patriot Act provisions.
There was no agreement in place Friday afternoon on a stopgap extension, and senators like Paul and Wyden, could fight any such stopgap proposal. Asked if Paul attended the meeting, McCain told CQ Roll Call, “of course not.”
“We’re just trying to find out how to keep something going while we try to resolve the differences,” Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said after the meeting. “We’ve got two other choices, but if those choices aren’t viable then I’ll sure we’ll try to go for some shorter extension.”
Paul, who controlled the floor for about 10-and-a-half hours Wednesday contesting bulk collection, has outlined a series of demands for amendment votes on moving legislation regarding the NSA’s powers.
Cornyn said that the real difference between the House-passed measure and a new proposal formally unveiled Friday by Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr was the length of time to transition from the federal government being the keeper of the phone records to the private companies, with a method to verify the functionality of the new system.
“My legislation provides a longer transition period to ensure that the metadata collection process moves properly to the carriers without endangering our national security or our personnel overseas. It also contains a bipartisan approach which would provide the government with advance notice of a carrier’s intent to change its data retention policies,” Burr said in a statement.
In response to that Senate proposal, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a former House Judiciary chairman, predicted that the Burr bill would be a non-starter on the House side.
“Senator Burr’s proposal to plug the so-called ‘holes’ in the USA FREEDOM Act is dead-on-arrival in the House. His bill is not stronger on national security, it is just much weaker on civil liberties. This is nothing more than a last-ditch effort to kill the USA FREEDOM Act, which passed the House 338-88. If the Senate coalesces around this approach, the result will be the expiration of important authorities needed to keep our country safe,” the Wisconsin Republican said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated the Obama administration’s view that Senate passage of the USA Freedom Act is the only acceptable path.
“The refusal of the Senate to consider this legislation in a similarly bipartisan spirit puts at risk not just the bipartisan compromise, but it puts at risk the ability of our national security professionals to keep us safe,” Earnest said. “And that’s why we continue to call on members of the Senate, in this case, in both parties to take up and pass the USA Freedom Act today.”
The endgame, meanwhile, stands in stark contrast to the era before Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s bulk collection programs.