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Patriot Act showdown looms for Republican presidential field

Patriot Act showdown looms for Republican presidential field

One of the first fights of the Republican presidential primary season will be over U.S. spying.

Congress’s upcoming debate over reforming government surveillance and extending portions of the Patriot Act will ensnare Republicans with their eyes on the White House — drawing a clear divide between the hawkish and libertarian-leaning contenders.

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Ahead of a critical June 1 deadline, GOP candidates have already begun to weigh in. 

“Sadly, one GOP candidate thinks the NSA’s [National Security Agency] violation of your rights is ‘very important,’ ” Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump stumps for Louisiana Senate candidate ahead of runoff Giuliani won't serve in Trump administration Will justice in America be Trumped? MORE (R-Ky.) tweeted over the weekend. “On day one in the Oval Office, I will END the NSA’s illegal assault on your rights.”

The comment was a swipe at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who has jumped at the opportunity to defend the NSA’s collection of data about millions of people in the U.S. Not only is the program in the best interests of the nation, he has said, but it’s also “the best part of the Obama administration.”  

The combative rhetoric, from Paul especially, is sure to heat up in coming weeks, as lawmakers begin debating proposals to reauthorize an expiring provision in the Patriot Act that gives the NSA authority to collect phone records without a warrant.

The program collects metadata from people’s phone calls, such as the numbers involved in a call and when it occurred but not the conversations. 

Unless Congress acts by June 1, that provision, known as Section 215, and two others would expire.

The debate could be a chance to shine for Paul, who called the NSA program unconstitutional in a lawsuit against the Obama administration last year, though he will have to walk a fine line between sticking to his guns and alienating GOP leadership.

“The problem here is, when you go through the Republican primary, particularly one as crowded as this … you’ve got to make sure that the core supporters are with you from the outset, because the way you’re going to win this is by basically growing [that base] over time,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “If they’re not with you, and they think that you’ve flip-flopped on this issue, which is so important to his supporters, he’d be dead in the water.”

That tension was already on display last week, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch
McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced legislation giving a blanket reauthorization to the current law without changes.

Paul declined to condemn the move from his fellow Kentuckian, both in response to questions from his office and when approached by reporters in person. 

Still, he has used the NSA to throw jabs at his likely presidential opponents.

In addition to this weekend’s Twitter attack on Bush, he also made passing comments about potential White House contender Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSecond Dem calls for probe into Russian election involvement Trump picks Exxon CEO Tillerson for secretary of State: report GOP senator: Russian hacking 'hardly news' MORE (R-S.C.) while accepting an award at the Constitution Project think tank last week.

“One unapologetic senator, who I’ve had a few rounds with, said, ‘If you’re not talking to terrorists, why are you worried?’ ” Paul said. “He goes on to say that he would censor the mail, if he could. Really?”

“Have we stooped so low that that is our standard?”

The comment seemed to refer to remarks Graham has made about the importance of U.S. surveillance throughout the years.

Paul will have plenty chances to point to the daylight between him and his GOP opponents, who have largely endorsed the NSA’s operations. 

McConnell’s bill to do a “clean” reauthorization of the Patriot Act “sounds good,” Graham told The Hill last week. 

“I’ve got one goal: I want to make sure that the Patriot Act is written in such a fashion as to prevent another 9/11 as much as possible,” he said. “I’m in the camp of a robust Patriot Act.”

When NSA reform legislation came before the Senate last year, Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate clears water bill with Flint aid, drought relief What Trump's Cabinet picks reveal House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief MORE (R-Fla.) took to the upper chamber’s floor to help to ensure its narrow defeat.

“I believe it is not a question of if, but of when, the next major terrorist attack occurs,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader earlier this month. “And the first question people are going to have is: ‘Why didn’t we know about it?’ “ 

For his part,  Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzSenate passes dozens of bills on way out of town Senate passes stopgap funding bill, averting shutdown Senate advances funding measure, avoiding shutdown MORE (R-Texas) has taken a more moderate approach.

Last year, he joined most Democrats and a few other Republicans voting in favor of a bill to reform the NSA while also extending the expiring Patriot Act provisions. In coming weeks, he’s likely to push for a similar plan.

Unfortunately for Paul, most Republican primary voters are probably on the hawks’ side.

Paul “pretty much believes that his position when it comes to surveillance is a net winner in a general election race. [It’s] not clear to me at all that it’s a net winner in a Republican primary,” said Matt Mackowiak, another Republican strategist and member of The Hill’s Contributor’s Blog.

“A year ago we might have been in a different situation, but given what we’re seeing with ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] and in Yemen … I think a lot of Americans recognize that there’s a balance between liberty and security, and for a lot of people, they’re probably comfortable with the balance ebbing in favor of security at this time,” he said.

“I think that’s probably true within the Republican Party.”