Senate showdown over Patriot Act gets underway

Posted at 7:10 PM, May 31, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-31 19:10:07-04

(CNN) — The Senate reconvened on Sunday afternoon for a rare session in a last-ditch — and increasingly improbable — effort to renew provisions of the controversial Patriot Act that are aimed at fighting terrorism.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, vowed Saturday to “force the expiration of the (National Security Agency) illegal spy program” and Senate rules make it all but certain that he will succeed if he follows through on his pledge.

The showdown is largely centered on a key Patriot Act provision that allows the NSA to collect and store telephone metadata on millions of Americans. Paul says it’s an example of government overreach.

“This is a debate over your right to be left alone,” Paul said on the Senate floor on Sunday.

The fight comes just as the chief sponsors of the USA Freedom Act proclaimed on Sunday that they have the votes to pass that bill, which would effectively end the bulk data collection program.

A House bill failed in the Senate last week by just three votes and Paul blocked McConnell’s attempts to reauthorize the Patriot Act without any changes for even just one day past expiration.

Now, the path to passage for any bill that would reauthorize Patriot Act provisions seems entirely uncertain, and Senate Republicans are scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. to find a way forward.

But given that the Patriot Act provisions are set to expire at midnight and the House is not set to return until Monday, the House version of the USA Freedom Act would be the only way to get legislation to the President before midnight.

House Speaker John Boehner on Sunday urged his Senate counterparts to move forward on that bill.

“Al Qaeda, ISIL and other terrorists around the globe continue to plot attacks on America and our allies. Anyone who is satisfied with letting this critical intelligence capability go dark isn’t taking the terrorist threat seriously. I’d urge the Senate to pass the bipartisan USA Freedom Act, and do so expeditiously,” he said in a statement issued on Sunday.

Obama and top officials in his administration made several comments this week urging the Senate to act to on that bill, and warning of serious consequences to national security if the Senate fails to renew the expiring provisions.

“A small group of senators is standing in the way,” Obama warned Saturday in his weekly radio address. “And unfortunately, some folks are trying to use this debate to score political points. But this shouldn’t and can’t be about politics. This is a matter of national security,”

Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the bulk metadata collection program, is not the only provision of the law set to expire. A key provision allowing counterterror officials to obtain roving wiretaps to listen in on potential terror suspects, even if they change phones, would also lapse.

While Obama didn’t target Paul by name in his radio address, he might as well have.

The Republican presidential hopeful isn’t passing up on an ounce of the political benefits his crusade against the NSA’s domestic surveillance program is earning him.

He’s taken his fight to the campaign trail and on social media, galvanizing his base of support in the lead-up to the crucial Sunday session, all the while his campaign pushed out fundraising appeals.

And a pro-Paul super PAC released an ad Friday that framed Sunday’s showdown as a “brawl for liberty,” even using the spot as an opportunity to hit not just Obama, but Paul’s primary opponent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Cruz supports the USA Freedom Act, but has argued against allowing the expiring Patriot Act provisions to expire.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, who like Paul opposes the NSA bulk data collection program, split with Paul on Sunday, according to his spokesman, said the Senate should move forward on the House bill.

“Sen. Wyden believes the Senate should act on the USA Freedom Act as soon as possible,” said Keith Chi, a Wyden spokesman, in a statement. “Senate Republican leaders chose to run out the clock until expiration of these provisions was the only likely outcome, and they bear full responsibility for where the Senate stands today.”

And Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, who voted against moving forward on the USA freedom act lay week, said Sunday he will support the bill — bringing it closer o the 60-vote threshold for support.