WASHINGTON -- Efforts to speed up renewal of the Patriot Act and reauthorize the program that ended at midnight Monday ran into the same roadblock: Rand Paul. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried again Monday afternoon to hold a vote on reauthorization legislation, which allows a modified program to collect bulk phone data to continue. But Paul objected, saying he would only consent to speeding up the process if he could get votes on his proposed amendments.
It’s almost inevitable the program will be renewed -- although with some modifications that leave control of much of the data with the phone companies instead of the government -- but Paul won't back down on dragging out the process. Since McConnell and Paul remained without a deal on those amendments, the majority leader announced the Senate would not vote until 11 a.m. Tuesday.
McConnell led a last-minute effort to try to strike a deal that would have avoided the lapse in the Patriot Act entirely. But Sunday evening, Paul's objections prohibited the Senate from doing anything more than clear a procedural hurdle to allow the House-passed USA Freedom Act to move forward. And so at midnight, the law, including less-controversial provisions like roving wiretaps and "lone wolf" detection measures, expired.
McConnell is not fully on board with the Freedom Act. The bill, which the House passed 338-88 with large bipartisan margins, would immediately change the way the National Security Agency collects large quantities of phone data. McConnell will hold votes on amendments designed to create a transition process for moving responsibility for keeping track of the phone records.
“We should take some common-sense steps to ensure the new system envisioned by that legislation -- a system we would soon have to rely upon to keep our country safe -- will, in fact, work,” McConnell said. “These fixes are common sense. And whatever one thinks of the proposed new system, there needs to be a basic assurance that it will function as its proponents say it will. The Senate should adopt these basic safeguards.”
But that will slow the process down further and increase the amount of time the program is shut down. If the Senate amendments are adopted, the bill will need to go back to the House for a second vote. This can be done quickly -- the House has been known to take up votes as quickly as the bill can be walked from one side of the building to the other -- but the delicate politics of the matter always could gum up the works.
McConnell offered some encouragement for Congress to move quickly. “So this is where we are,” McConnell said. “It now falls on all of us to work diligently and responsibly to get the American people the best outcome that can be reasonably expected in this reality.”
And the Republican Senate leader has been eager to see matters handled efficiently in his chamber. Since taking over the Senate in January, Republicans have worked to make the case they are the party capable of getting important tasks done.
Democrats didn’t miss the chance to point out another deadline lapsed under Republican control. "I am deeply disappointed that the new Senate Republican majority has taken the irresponsible route of allowing key national security protections to expire,” House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer said. “The House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill that included responsible reforms in order to protect our national security while safeguarding privacy rights. I urge the Senate to act swiftly and adopt the House bill."