Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) held the Senate floor for 10 1/2 hours on Wednesday in what he described as a filibuster of legislation that would renew the USA Patriot Act for two months while lawmakers continued to debate the future of the surveillance state. Paul, relieved occasionally by like-minded senators from both parties, including Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Utah Republican Mike Lee, argued that the country has surrendered too much liberty in exchange for perceived security.
Barring some sort of legislative miracle, though, the section of the Patriot Act that has been used to justify the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records appears likely to expire before lawmakers come to an agreement about what limits, if any, should be placed on intelligence services’ ability to spy on U.S. citizens.
The law’s controversial Section 215 allows the government, with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to collect “tangible things” like books, records and documents — but its use has been expanded to cover a wider range of materials and to justify the sweeping collection of telephone records.
Under the Patriot Act, the National Security Agency captures and stores metadata about all phone calls made in the United States and many that are made abroad. The metadata does not include the contents of the discussions – there are no recordings of what people actually say – but it does allow analysts to see who is calling whom, when, how often and for what lengths of time.
The Patriot Act, including Section 215, is set to sunset on June 1, and if it does, it won’t be because of Paul’s talk-a-thon. It will be because the House and Senate are miles apart on the key issue of bulk data collection and because the House is scheduled to leave town no later than 3 p.m. today, not to return until next month.
Paul’s long speech might have exacerbated the Senate’s time crunch, but it mostly helped draw attention to the senator and GOP presidential candidate; his campaign reportedly sent out a fundraising appeal while he held the Senate floor.
The House has already passed a renewal of the Patriot Act that ends the NSA’s bulk collection of data, instead requiring telephone companies to retain records for a fixed period of time and allowing law enforcement access to the records with a court-issued warrant.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to keep the body in session into the weekend in order to hold votes on a handful of issues that he wants to deal with before the Memorial Day break. That includes a vote on giving the president “fast track” authority on trade deals, as well as on the House bill renewing and modifying the Patriot Act.
A simple reauthorization of the Patriot Act, including the continuation of bulk collection of phone records, appears unlikely at this point. For all the last-minute drama, though, neither the NSA issue nor the trade one will be settled for good whenever McConnell lets the Senate leave town.
So while there may be doubt about whether the USA Patriot Act reauthorization and, to a lesser extent, the fast-track bill, get out of the Senate this weekend, there isn’t any doubt about whether a final deal on either is feasible before Congress leaves town. It’s not, and we’ll be doing this again the first week of June.
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