PATRIOT Act on life support after Rand Paul stymies renewal efforts
Frankly, Rand Paul is the only Senator I trust, that is not part of the inside-the-beltway fix. Paul and 41 Democrat senators held up this bill because it authorizes spying on all of us.
By SEUNG MIN KIM and BURGESS EVERETT
The Senate plunged into chaos Saturday as Republicans found themselves tangled over the PATRIOT Act, Rand Paul repeatedly stymied his leaders, and senators left town with critical national security programs about to lapse.
In a rare early morning Saturday vote, the Senate blocked a popular House bill that would rein in controversial government surveillance programs. The vote was 57-42, and it needed 60 votes to advance. Immediately after that vote, the Senate also rejected a straight 60-day extension of the Bush-era national security law on a 45-54 vote — leaving the Senate with no immediate options to ensure the programs don't expire before the end of the month.
Paul, the libertarian firebrand and GOP presidential hopeful, pushed the Senate into the wee hours of Saturday to protest the bulk collection of phone records, as weary and recess-hungry senators trudged through a packed to-do list — finishing trade legislation but getting stuck on the PATRIOT Act issues.
"It's not about making a point, it's about trying to prevent the bulk collection of data," Paul told reporters after the Senate floor drama. When asked whether his objections were a fundraising tactic, Paul responded: "I think people don't question my sincerity."
After the two failed votes early Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to swiftly pass shorter and shorter temporary reauthorizations of the PATRIOT Act — extending it to June 8, June 5, June 3 and then June 2 — but he was blocked by Paul, as well as two Democratic senators.
After being stiff-armed at every turn, McConnell announced that the Senate would be back in session on May 31 to resolve the PATRIOT Act standoff — just hours before the critical provisions are poised to sunset.
"This is a high threat period and we know what's going on overseas, we know what's been tried here at home," McConnell said. "We better be ready next Sunday afternoon to prevent the country from being in danger by total expiration of the program that we're all familiar with."
Paul had a long list of demands, even after holding the Senate floor for nearly 11 hours this week while railing against the controversial surveillance tactics. Many of those demands were viewed as unrealistic by his colleagues.
"I'm a little surprised," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said. "Sen. Paul is asking for something that nobody will agree to."
Still, Paul was far from the GOP leadership's sole obstacle. Senate Republicans were scrambling for much of Friday to reconcile vastly different views among their ranks over the PATRIOT Act, and a closed-door party meeting during the day didn't resolve how lawmakers would deal with the provisions that are set to expire after May 31.
After the failure of the two high-stakes votes, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters: "That's what happens when you try to jam everything in a short period of time."
On Friday, senators on both sides of the surveillance divide worked to whip up support — or opposition — against a popular House bill that would rein in the bulk collection methods first revealed by Edward Snowden. That bill passed the House on a 338-88 vote, but influential Senate Republicans, including McConnell, have criticized it as an untested proposal that would be installed just as the nation faces a host of security threats.
At the closed-door GOP meeting, senior senators, including McConnell, told Republicans considering a vote for opening debate on the House's USA Freedom Act that if they did so, the Senate would stay all through next week's recess.
"We need to recognize that terrorist tactics and the nature of the threat have changed," McConnell said Friday. "At a moment of elevated threat, it would be a mistake to take from our intelligence community any — any — of the valuable tools needed to build a complete picture of terrorist networks and their plans, such as the bulk data collection program."
But McConnell has found himself in a bind as the Senate rushes to a deadline at month's end when key provisions of the PATRIOT Act, including the section used to justify the bulk collection program, will expire. The House NSA bill, called the USA Freedom Act, has significant support, but many Senate Republicans oppose the legislation and see current surveillance tactics as a critical part of fighting terrorism.
McConnell preferred a two-month extension of current surveillance law to buy time for a broader compromise on the programs. But senators and aides had indicated in advance of the late night vote that the 60-day punt was also likely to fail.
Most Senate Democrats opposed the 6o-day extension because they believed two months is still too long for the current PATRIOT Act programs to continue. Now, GOP leadership is looking to recalibrate on an even shorter extension — anywhere from one week to one month — and hope that the House swallows that plan.
"If those choices aren't viable, then I'm sure we'll try to go for some shorter extension," Cornyn said earlier Friday.
It's far from clear whether that gamble would work, considering the House has vowed that a short-term extension of current PATRIOT Act provisions, without any changes to bulk collection, won't fly in their chamber. And the House has already left Washington for the weeklong Memorial Day recess, leaving the Senate boxed into a corner on the surveillance issue.
The Senate reconvenes at 4 p.m. on May 31, just eight hours before the PATRIOT Act provisions will lapse.
Two of Paul's closest allies in the House — GOP Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Justin Amash of Michigan — were on the floor for the Saturday vote. Amash said he would oppose even a one-week extension of the current PATRIOT Act provisions, if the Senate were to pass one and send it to the House for quick passage before May 31.
McConnell pressed hard for a 60-day extension for much of the day on Friday. The Republican leader stressed that details of calls surveilled under current PATRIOT Act programs — such as who is making them and their content — aren't being kept, just the time and lengths of conversations. And McConnell raised concerns that under the House bill, telephone companies are not legally required to keep the call records for a certain period of time, although such a data-retention mandate would not have the support to pass Congress.
That was a worry shared by Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and one of the few members of the caucus who opposes the USA Freedom Act.
"I learned between last year and this year that the phone companies won't agree to retain the data for any length of time, which renders the bill – as far as I'm concerned – ineffective," King said Friday. "If the phone companies can discard the data at any point, then it doesn't protect the public the way I think it should."
On Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest accused the Senate of playing "chicken" with national security.
"There is no Plan B," as far as an administrative fix to prevent gaps in the program, Earnest said. "These are authorities that Congress must legislate."
Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) unveiled a proposal Friday framed as a compromise of sorts. It calls for a transition period of two years for the telephone companies — which, under the House bill, would hold the data that can be accessed by intelligence officials with a court order — to adjust to the new system. After the two years, the bulk collection by the NSA would end.
Two other expiring parts of the PATRIOT Act — provisions to track lone-wolf terrorists and the use of roving wiretaps — would be permanently reauthorized under Burr's plan.
Kate Tummarello, Alex Byers and Sarah Wheaton contributed to this report.