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Rand Paul Will Force Patriot Act Provisions to Expire (Updated)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated May 30, 11:06 a.m. |  Sen. Rand Paul made it official Saturday: Patriot Act surveillance authorities are going to lapse.  

The Kentucky Republican fired off a series of tweets outlining his past steps designed to stop what he has called the unconstitutional use of general warrants.  

“Forcing us to choose between our rights and our safety is a false choice and we are better than that as a nation and as a people,” Paul tweeted. “It’s why I have been seeking for months to have a full, open and honest debate on this issue — a debate that never came.”  

“Let me be clear: I acknowledge the need for a robust intelligence agency and for a vigilant national security. I believe we must fight terrorism, and I believe we must stand strong against our enemies. But we do not need to give up who we are to defeat them. In fact, we must not,” Paul said. “There has to be another way. We must find it together. So tomorrow, I will force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program.”  

Earlier, President Barack Obama warned against allowing a lapse in authorities in his weekly address, alluding to Paul.  

“A small group of senators is standing in the way. And, unfortunately, some folks are trying to use this debate to score political points. But this shouldn’t and can’t be about politics. This is a matter of national security. Terrorists like al-Qaida and ISIL aren’t suddenly going to stop plotting against us at midnight tomorrow,” Obama said. “And we shouldn’t surrender the tools that help keep us safe. It would be irresponsible. It would be reckless. And we shouldn’t allow it to happen.”  

Holding the floor might get more attention, but Paul doesn’t have to talk all night Sunday to make that happen. In fact, he doesn’t have to do much of anything except offer a few timely objections . The Senate runs on unanimous consent — not nearly unanimous consent or overwhelming support.  

Paul said his objections Sunday would serve as a precursor to a broad debate he would like to see about surveillance powers.  

Here’s the detailed scenario for the Senate moving as fast as possible under the rules in the face of maximum obstruction from Paul, even if the other 99 senators want to act.  

As early as 6 p.m. Sunday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could move to reconsider a failed vote to limit debate on taking up the House-passed overhaul of the expiring Patriot Act surveillance powers. McConnell led the effort to filibuster that bill, which fell three votes short of the needed 60 shortly after midnight on May 23.  

But invoking cloture on the first vote is just the first step of many, with the clock ticking. That cloture vote merely sets up another vote on proceeding to the bill.  

There are up to 30 hours of debate in order after the first cloture vote, before voting on the motion to proceed to the bill, of which Paul is entitled to one.  

If no else joins Paul in chewing up floor time with hour-long speechifying , the Senate could then vote on adopting the motion to proceed Sunday evening.  

But without Paul’s consent the programs in question would go dark because McConnell would still have to file a cloture motion to end Paul’s filibuster of the bill itself. And that vote, under the rules, wouldn’t occur until 1 a.m. Tuesday at the earliest.  

Under the rules, cloture motions must sit through an intervening day, which would be Monday if McConnell were able to move to cut off debate on a bill on Sunday.  

Following that 1 a.m. Tuesday cloture vote, again assuming all possible speed, Paul would be entitled to chew up another hour talking on the floor.  

That’s with maximum speed.  

If Paul finds an army of senators backing his filibuster, the process would take even longer due to the 30-hour rule.  

All that assumes, of course, that the White House-backed USA Freedom Act can muster 60 votes after falling three votes shy before the Memorial Day recess, and also assumes McConnell drops his own objections to that measure.  

Proceeding to an entirely new bill, meanwhile, would take even more days to jump through the procedural traps needed simply to get to a motion to proceed. Time could be shaved off by offering a germane amendment to an existing bill, if there’s a deal.  

But, to put it bluntly, if Senate leaders and the White House want to get the USA Freedom Act to the president’s desk before the Patriot Act authorities expire at midnight Sunday, there’s only one route under the rules: cut a deal with Paul. And given his statement issued Saturday, it would seem Paul isn’t budging.  

He was insisting on securing simple majority votes on a pair of amendments before he blocked McConnell’s request for a one-day extension of the Patriot Act. There’s no indication his Senate colleagues would agree to such a request.  

There are a few ways outside the rules to get around Paul, but those would be tantamount to going “nuclear.”  

The easiest would be for the chair to simply refuse to recognize him for an objection. (Don’t expect that to happen, even with Obama administration warning allowing the Patriot Act expiration amounted to playing “national security Russian roulette.” )  

Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the lead authors of the House-passed bill and the original Patriot Act, renewed his call for the Senate moving forward on the USA Freedom Act in a May 28 interview with CQ Roll Call.  

“The point that I would make, with the deadline coming up and Sen. Paul, I’m sure he has eight hours and one minute worth of juice in him having the week off — or running for president, one of the two. This has gotten involved in presidential politics. You’ve got Paul on one side, Lindsey Graham on the other side and Ted Cruz in the middle,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “If you look at what happens, when we go over the cliff, Rand Paul wins by default, and with the House not coming in until Monday at 2 o’clock the act will expire and the only way they can stop Sen. Paul from winning by default is passing the USA Freedom Act.”  

Paul’s presidential campaign operation has fired off no shortage of fundraising messages since the Senate adjourned without acting Saturday morning, decrying the measure championed by Sensenbrenner as “some type of phony ‘reform’ bill” and vowing to do everything he can to force the expiration of the Patriot Act’s surveillance authority.  

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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