Sen. Rand Paul led a successful effort to block renewal of the Patriot Act early Saturday morning, followed by a deeply divided Senate leaving Washington without taking action on the National Security Agency’s soon-to-expire power to collect domestic phone records.
Without Senate action, the surveillance powers will at least temporarily lapse at midnight May 31.
The Senate voted after midnight against a House-passed bill that would have changed the bulk phone record program while renewing less controversial provisions of the Patriot Act.
That bill, under which the records would be kept by the phone companies instead of the government, needed 60 votes to pass and failed with 57 senators in favor and 42 opposed.
The Senate next rejected a bill by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that would have extended the NSA’s current spying powers for two months. That vote was 45 to 54.
McConnell then repeatedly asked senators to allow a shorter extension — even a day — but Paul, R-Ky., and his allies repeatedly objected and blocked the proposals.
A frustrated McConnell then told senators to go home for their scheduled Memorial Day break. But he ordered them back a day early, May 31, hours before the surveillance powers expire. It’s not clear what’s going to happen between now and then to break the logjam, though, and the House isn’t scheduled to return from its break until June 1.
Pau is running for the Republican nomination for president and his opposition to the NSA’s domestic surveillance is the centerpiece of his campaign.
Paul made a 10-and-half hour speech against the Patriot Act renewal earlier in the week, describing it as “the most unpatriotic of acts,” and his campaign has been sending out fundraising appeals highlighting his actions on the issue and calling for potential donors to “Stand with Rand.”
“The Senate will return one week from Sunday. With your help we can end illegal NSA spying once and for all,” Paul said Saturday morning in a Twitter post.
His position puts him at sharp odds with his fellow Kentuckian McConnell, who calls the NSA data collection important for national security.
“We need to recognize that terrorist tactics and the nature of the threat have changed, and that a moment of elevated threat it would be a mistake to take from our intelligence community any of the valuable tools needed to build a complete picture of terrorist networks,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
The White House has been pushing the Senate hard to pass the House-passed bill.
Section 215, used to justify the phone data collection, isn’t the only provision that wouldl expire on June 1. So would the “lone wolf” provision, meant for spying on targets not directly connected to terrorist cells, and a provision that lets the government use roving wiretaps to track suspects who switch phones or locations. After the powers expire they can still be used for existing investigations, the Justice Department said, but not new ones.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that “there is no Plan B” if Congress doesn’t act before the deadline.
“The fact is we’ve got people in the United States Senate right now who are playing chicken with this,” Earnest said. “And to play chicken with that is grossly irresponsible.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., proposed a bill that he calls a compromise. It’s similar to the House-passed bill, but calls for a two- year transition instead of six months before the phone companies start keeping the data instead of the government.
“It’s clear that the USA Freedom Act doesn’t protect our national security as well as it should, so I’m providing a framework to plug the holes in the bill,” Burr said.
But House members such as former Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner dismissed Burr’s effort.
“Senator Burr’s proposal to plug the so-called ‘holes’ in the USA Freedom Act is dead on arrival in the House,” Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said in a written statement. “His bill is not stronger on national security, it is just weaker on civil liberties.”