McConnell's NSA gambit fails

McConnell's NSA gambit fails
© Greg Nash

Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe Trump Administration has definitely not drained the swamp How does placing sanctions on Russia help America? THE MEMO: Trump's wild first month MORE staged an epic gamble over U.S. spying powers — and lost.

The Republican leader pledged to keep senators in Washington through the weekend to finish work on expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, but Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Rand Paul: We’re very lucky John McCain’s not in charge Rand Paul: John Bolton would be a 'bad choice' for national security adviser MORE (R-Ky.) called his bluff.

Instead, when the smoke cleared in the early hours of Saturday morning, the 2016 presidential contender was the one with bragging rights.

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The battle between the two Kentucky Republicans spilled over on the Senate floor, with Paul using procedural tactics to force the chamber into an early Saturday vote. He then used his leverage to kill off McConnell’s repeated attempts to reauthorize the expiring National Security Agency (NSA) programs — first for two months, then for eight days, then for five, then three, then two.

McConnell and the Republican leadership team had appeared confident even into Friday evening that they could kill the House-passed USA Freedom Act. They had planned to force the Senate into accepting a “clean” reauthorization of the provisions — set to expire at the end of the month — at least for a short while. 

But Paul and other opponents of the “clean” renewal held firm, forcing McConnell to kick the can and adjourn the Senate without a clear path forward on how to prevent a shutdown of the NSA programs. 

Leaving the Capitol, Republicans seemed confused on what their leader’s next steps would be.

“That's a really good question,” Sen. Mike LeeMike LeeTop antitrust senators call for Sessions to scrutinize AT&T-Time Warner merger Public lands dispute costs Utah a major trade show GOP senators unveil bill to give Congress control of consumer bureau budget MORE (R-Utah) said, when asked what would change between Saturday and when senators return to Washington for a rare Sunday session on May 31.

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainHow does placing sanctions on Russia help America? THE MEMO: Trump's wild first month Trump’s feud with the press in the spotlight MORE (R-Ariz.) seemed equally unsure if Paul would accept a deal before returning to Washington.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. They march to a different drum,” the Armed Services Committee chairman said, adding that he was sure Paul’s tactics were “a great revenue raiser.”

Even Paul himself appeared non-committal on whether or not he would accept a deal.

“We'll see,” he told reporters as he left the Capitol. "It depends, sometimes things change as deadlines approach."

The junior senator from Kentucky wants votes on two amendments, and said that he didn’t understand why McConnell wouldn't let them pass by a simple majority threshold.

Supporters of the USA Freedom Act appeared bolstered by the amount of support the House-passed legislation received, coming three votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a procedural hurdle.

Lee said he suspects McConnell will try to work out a deal over the recess, adding that “I hope that whatever that is, is going to be built on… the House-passed USA Freedom Act.”

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump to speak at CPAC Trump to interview four candidates for national security adviser Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at CPAC MORE, who is competing against Paul for his party’s presidential nomination, said he was “hopeful” that McConnell would see the light on the reform bill, which passed the lower chamber in an overwhelming 338-88 vote.

"Sometimes the Senate takes some time for debate and consideration,” the Texas Republican said. “I think we'll take a week and come back and cooler heads will prevail."

Cruz, while acknowledging that he disagreed with Paul, refused to criticize his hardball tactics, saying that he’s “a big fan” of the libertarian favorite.

McConnell didn’t respond to a barrage of questions from reporters as he left the Capitol, and has given no sign of what his next step would be.

McConnell and Paul have been allies of late. Paul endorsed McConnell last year in his reelection bid, and McConnell is backing Paul's White House run.

But the Republican leader appeared to be caught off guard by his fellow Kentuckian’s resolve, and had previously brushed aside Paul’s filibuster threat.

“Well, ya know, everybody threatens to filibuster. We’ll see what happens,” McConnell told ABC’s “This Week.” “This is the security of the country we’re talking about here. This is no small matter. We see it on display on almost a weekly basis.”

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynRepublicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy Comey meets Intel senators amid uproar over Trump-Russia ties Corker: Senate GOP discussing best path for Russia probe MORE (Texas), the Republican whip, suggested that Republicans would be able to find a way out of the current standstill, telling reporters after the votes that, "yeah, we'll fix it. I am confident."

Even with path to a deal unclear, the spy brawl had one clear winner — Paul's political ambitions.

He has staked much of his presidential campaign on his civil libertarian bone fides. The stalemate, as well as his filibuster earlier this week, has helped him, and his presidential campaign, dominate the media this week.

Paul showed no sign early Saturday morning of letting go of that spotlight.

“The Senate has refused to reauthorize bulk data collection. I am proud to have stood up for the Bill of Rights,” he tweeted from his campaign’s account on Saturday. “But our fight is not over.”

“The Senate will return one week from Sunday,” he added. “With your help we can end illegal NSA spying once and for all.”

But he also flatly rejected that his hardline on the Patriot Act provisions was part of a campaign stunt, telling reporters, “I think people don’t really question my sincerity.”