Paul to take blame if Patriot Act fight goes over cliff

Paul to take blame if Patriot Act fight goes over cliff
© Greg Nash

Virtually all sides are ready to blame Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulWe're all on the tarmac, waiting for an Iran policy This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Washington braces for Trump's next move on Iran MORE (R-Ky.) if the Senate doesn’t renew provisions of the Patriot Act before they expire at midnight.

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Paul’s Saturday pledge to “force the expiration” of the laws practically ensured that they would lapse this weekend, despite a rare Sunday evening session to try and make one last stab at saving them.

Some civil libertarians and Paul’s army of backers would surely cherish his decision to stand strong.

But Paul’s opponents in the race for the White House as well GOP leaders and the Obama administration seem equally ready to lay the blame at his feet, and accuse him of putting his political motivations above the best interests of the nation.

“Unfortunately, I think that there’s been a little bit too much political grandstanding and crusading for ideological causes that have rally skewed the debate,” CIA Director John Brennan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday morning. “These tools are important to American lives.”

President Obama made similar remarks in his weekly address, accusing some lawmakers of “trying to use this debate to score political points.”

Former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) on Sunday piled on, accusing Paul of “simply putting Americans at risk for political reasons.”

“I think he’s wrong,” he added on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The remarks from Pataki — who announced his bid for president last week but has yet to gain major traction — signals the political goldmine that Paul’s opponents sense in his fight.

Likely GOP White House candidates have been quick to attack Paul for recent comments he made about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and would surely have a field day if he forces the Patriot Act provisions to expire.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been Paul’s prime opponent in the fight. While McConnell has so far declined to take direct shots at his fellow Kentuckian — whom he practically appeared to endorse for president — that could change if Paul’s tactics end up killing parts of the law.

Procedurally, Paul appears certainly able to send the Senate beyond its midnight deadline, thereby killing the three controversial measures — at least temporarily.

The USA Freedom Act — which would renew the measures but end the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of Americans’ phone “metadata” — failed last week by three votes, leading to the Sunday session.

Paul has said he would not object to moving that bill along swiftly so long as he received permission to bring up two amendments for a simple majority vote. It’s unclear whether he will get that.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — one of the authors of the USA Freedom Act — appears willing to support the chance for amendments, though he noted that time is running out.

“We would like to have a debate on our bill and consider amendments,” he said in excerpts of his Sunday floor speech shared with The Hill. “Because opponents of reform have run out the clock and jam the Senate, we are not left with much time. But the Senate could consider a limited number of amendments now.”

However, adding any amendments to the bill would necessarily mean that it wouldn’t reach the president’s desk until next week, since the House won’t be back in session until Monday evening. As a result, the laws would still lapse at midnight.

If Paul did object to moving forward with the NSA reform bill, that could force consideration back to Tuesday, given Senate rules.

The fight over timing appears to be the main concern now, after backers of the USA Freedom Act appeared confident that they had managed to cobble together the 60 votes necessary to move forward.

“I do believe we have the votes,” Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) — the main Republican backer of the reform bill — said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“At this point, I think is not about whether we get this passed but when,” he added. “It’ll happen either tonight or it’ll happen on Wednesday, or somewhere within that 72-hour window.”

But by then, the Patriot Act provisions would have lapsed.

While the expiration of the laws for just a few hours might have only a minor effect on national security, it could make it politically more difficult to get a new bill done. At that point, lawmakers would have to enact broad new powers for the government, which could be a more treacherous vote.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has already warned lawmakers that they might need to take “further action” on the issue this week, in case the Senate fails.

But it’s unclear exactly how they would proceed, given the new political reality.

“I would be surprised if the House rushes to reinstate it,” said Harley Geiger, advocacy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, last week.

“At that point, a vote to restore those same authorities is not an extension — it is an expansion of surveillance law,” he added. “And that will give some House members pause, because it is a different vote to expand surveillance law rather than to extend existing law.”