WASHINGTON — The Senate reluctantly agreed to take up a modified reauthorization of the Patriot Act that includes modest controls on the federal domestic surveillance programs, handing a victory of sorts to Sen. Rand Paul who had opposed any extension of the Patriot Act.
Following an hour-long closed-door meeting of the Senate Republican conference on Sunday, the chamber voted 77–17 to begin debate on the USA Freedom Act. That bill, which creates a new electronic surveillance system and makes some changes to the Patriot Act, has already passed the House and has the blessing of the intelligence community.
The agreement came over the objections of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who opposes the House bill and had aggressively pushed for a short-term extension of the Patriot Act, without changes.
"We shouldn't be disarming unilaterally as our enemies grow more sophisticated and aggressive. And we certainly should not be doing so based on a campaign of demagoguery and disinformation launched in the wake of the unlawful actions of Edward Snowden, who was last seen in Russia," McConnell said angrily in a floor speech prior to the vote.
Although a boon for Paul's campaign coffers thanks to a relentless fundraising campaign based around the spying debate, it is a pyrrhic victory for the Kentucky Republican: The Patriot Act will only expire in the most nominal sense as of midnight Sunday. The law includes "wind-down" provisions that will mean the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies will see little change in their ability to conduct on going domestic electronic surveillance, although no new data collections could be started.
Rep. Justin Amash, who has been a fierce opponent of the Patriot Act, acknowledged there is little substantive meaning to the expiration, but that it could have significant political consequences.
"The hours aren't significant … what is significant is that at midnight the Patriot Act expires, and I think from a legislative standpoint, someone looking at what they're going to authorize has to think of it like that. That they are authorizing something from scratch. There will be a lot of Democrats out there who will face incredibly tough primaries if the vote to basically reauthorize the Patriot Act from scratch after it expires," Amash told reporters prior to the vote.
Paul's decision to force the symbolic expiration of the law could also carry a high political cost — the support of McConnell.
Although Paul initially rubbed not only McConnell but the entire GOP conference the wrong way when he first came to the Senate, the two Kentuckians eventually came to an understanding, which allowed Paul to use the Senate as a megaphone to pursue his policy positions while not throwing monkey wrenches into McConnell's broader plans.
The arrangement took on added significance when Paul became a key ally in McConnell's re-election campaign last year. A number of top Paul staffers joined team McConnell, and Paul's work as a surrogate in the state helped McConnell defeat conservative upstart Matt Bevin during the primary campaign.
In return, McConnell quickly threw his weight behind Paul's presidential campaign. And while McConnell made it clear he won't use his position as leader to help Paul, the simple act of the laying of hands on Paul by the leader of the GOP's establishment faction has helped Paul's standing.
But Paul's open defiance could cost him in the future. McConnell has aggressively pushed Senate Republicans to vote against the USA Freedom Act, and instead to vote for an extension of the Patriot Act, and he had hoped that by backing up the original vote on the bill to last week's congressional recess, he could prevail. But when Paul didn't budge, McConnell found himself in the embarrassing position of either moving forward with the House's bill or simply letting the law expire.
And on Sunday, the senior senator from Kentucky — who is not known for his capacity to forgive and forget — was clearly displeased with his home state colleague.
"It is now clear that [reauthorization] will not be possible in the face of determined opposition from those who simply wish to end the counterterrorism program altogether," McConnell said icily, looking over at Paul.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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