Senate Advances Patriot Act Overhaul, but Too Late to Foil Rand Paul (Updated)
Updated 11:52 p.m. | The Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance the USA Freedom Act Sunday evening, but too late to prevent Sen. Rand Paul from being able to force a short-term expiration of Patriot Act surveillance authorities at midnight.
The vote came after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., threw in the towel on advancing any short-term extensions of the Patriot Act authorities under the continuing objections of Paul, the fellow Kentuckian he has endorsed for the presidency.
The Senate voted 77-17, far above the 60-vote threshold to advance the bill. Several more steps are required, however, before a vote on final passage, which wouldn’t happen until Tuesday at 2 a.m. at the earliest in the face of maximum obstruction from Paul. And it’s starting to look like it could take more days beyond that.
Paul acknowledged the bill “will ultimately pass” as he began an hourlong speech Sunday night.
“The Patriot Act will expire tonight. It will only be temporary,” he acknowledged. But he said that forcing the expiration was still worth it, and believed most Americans agreed with him.
The administration earlier indicated that the point of no return for cutting off the NSA’s bulk phone metadata program was 8 p.m., and Republican leaders effectively gave up trying to prevent the expiration. McConnell adjoined the Senate shortly before 10 p.m.
McConnell, who had previously voted to filibuster the USA Freedom Act, preferring a straight Patriot Act extension, switched sides but said he’d like to see it amended. That would require going back to the House, delaying any revival of the Patriot Act authorities.
Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr is proposing several such changes, according to the North Carolina Republican’s office. Like McConnell, Burr has been a consistent skeptic of the House-passed bill.
A key proposal would be to extend the transition time from the system that expires at midnight regarding bulk storage from 180 days in the USA Freedom Act to a full year. Burr wants to also require a certification by the Director of National Intelligence that the system for querying phone records held by the telecom companies is effective.
Among other changes, Burr also wants to require the telephone companies to notify the government in the event they’re planning to reduce the length of time they would hold phone records to shorter than 18-months.
McConnell’s announcement came after several tense exchanges on the floor with Paul, including a testy back-and-forth with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who repeatedly accused Paul of not knowing Senate rules for when he is allowed to speak. At one point, McCain even objected to letting Paul talk for five minutes, before relenting.
“He would be the worst candidate we could put forward,” the GOP’s 2008 nominee later told reporters about Paul’s presidential aspirations.
Republican leaders now hope to finish up action to restore Patriot Act surveillance authorities in the coming days, calling the authorities of critical importance at a time of rising and sophisticated terrorist threats.
“This really does raise the risk to the public,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, who seemed to direct his remarks at Paul.
“It does eliminate one of the tools that the intelligence community has to identify homegrown terrorists, and it just seems to me to be reckless to not at least allow a temporary continuation,” Cornyn said. “But that’s not the way it’s working and unfortunately I think it’s, you know, part of a presidential campaign and people have to judge it for themselves.”
While this has now become an urgent matter, Republican leaders also had allowed the Senate to go home for recess for the past week, despite Paul’s threats.
Press Secretary Josh Earnest issued a statement late Sunday touting the USA Freedom Act as a reasonable compromise hammered out over a year and a half.
“The Senate took an important—if late—step forward tonight,” he said. “We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible.”
Senators voting to filibuster proceeding to the USA Freedom Act were all Republicans: Susan Collins of Maine, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Dan Coats of Indiana, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Paul, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Marco Rubio of Florida, Jim Risch of Idaho and John Thune of South Dakota.
Some of those senators, however, made clear that they didn’t support Rand Paul.
“It’s not because I stand with Rand Paul, but because I believe that we’re not going to be given sufficient opportunity to correct some serious flaws in the House bill,” Collins said. “I believe that the House bill raises privacy concerns that far exceed what the current law allows.”
“It wasn’t because I was voting with Rand,” said Thune, the Republican Conference chairman. “I just think we ought to have more of an opportunity to fix the House bill.”
Thune said possible amendments included extending the six months in the House bill for a transition away from the bulk program and a certification that the technology is ready to do so.
Rubio also took a veiled shot at Paul in a statement.
“After tonight there is no guarantee that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies will have all the tools they need to protect the American people in the face of a growing terrorist threat,” he said, despite his vote to filibuster. “Allowing any of these programs to expire is a mistake, but that’s what is happening as a consequence of the reckless spreading of misinformation and political posturing.”
Niels Lesniewski and Matthew Fleming contributed to this report.
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