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The filibuster that wasn't: Rand Paul takes on Patriot Act (+video)

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is delivering his promised filibuster of the Patriot Act. But does it still count if there's no Senate business to block?

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When is a filibuster not a filibuster? When Republican Sen. Rand Paul takes to the floor to defend American liberties from the Patriot Act – and the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency, or NSA.

The libertarian Kentucky senator, who is running for president, began talking Wednesday at about 1:15 p.m. He worked his way through one three-ring binder, with two more in reserve at the table next to him. His water glass was full. His reading glasses were getting a workout.

But technically, it’s not really the “filibuster” he promised the Union Leader in New Hampshire, because he wasn’t actually blocking any Senate business. The chamber is in a sort of dead period, waiting for the clock to run out on a procedural vote on trade.

After more than two hours into his speech, senators from both parties began to give him a release by asking him lengthy questions – which allowed him to keep holding the floor. If he can keep going until 12:01 a.m., then it will be a filibuster because he will actually be delaying Senate action on trade.

Technicalities aside, Paul now has video for use on the campaign trail and on social media, buttressing his pledge to “defeat the Washington machine.” 

It’s a move reminiscent of his last marathon speech on the Senate floor, a nearly 13-hour test of personal fortitude when he railed against the Obama administration’s use of drones in 2013. That earned him an instant national following and the Twitter hashtag #StandWithRand.

“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer,” he began on Wednesday. “That time is now. And I will not let the Patriot Act, the most un-Patriotic of acts, go unchallenged.”

The tousle-haired candidate called the federal government’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone data, which was revealed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, “a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment.” Indeed, a federal appeals court has ruled it illegal.

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The section of the Patriot Act that the administration has been relying on to justify the data collection expires on June 1. To reform the practice, the House recently passed a broadly bipartisan bill, the USA Freedom Act. It would, among other things, take the government out of the business of phone-record collection. Instead, the records would stay with phone companies, and the federal government would need a search warrant to obtain them.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky opposes the House bill, which passed by a strong vote of 338 to 88 last week. Senator McConnell says it would place a hurdle against the government’s ability to protect Americans from terrorists – a position in direct contrast to that of his junior colleague from the Bluegrass State.

But McConnell has bowed to pressure and said Tuesday that he will allow a vote on the House bill before the Senate breaks for the Memorial Day recess. However, it’s not clear that it will pass. An alternative might be to pass a short-term extension or, if that fails, to simply let the provision expire.  

Nothing would make Paul happier. Except, of course, to stand out in the crowded field of GOP presidential candidates. 

That's exactly what this maneuver was designed to do.

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