Rand Paul can jam the Patriot Act, but for how long?

Key provisions of the Patriot Act expire midnight Sunday. The House has passed the USA Freedom Act, which puts some limits on the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data, but Sen. Rand Paul vows to continue the debate beyond the Sunday deadline.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., holds up his cellphone to make a point about government eavesdropping as he speaks at Arizona State University Friday, May 8, 2015, in Tempe, Ariz.

It’s crunch time for the USA Patriot Act and its bulk collection of phone records and other personal data. And the man with the hammer is Sen. Rand Paul.

The Kentucky Republican is nothing if not dogged on the issue of domestic spying by the National Security Agency (NSA). He’s filibustered on the floor of the Senate, sued the NSA, gone against his party’s leadership (as well as the White House and intelligence officials), and staked his declared run for the presidency largely on stopping what he calls “the invasive and illegal spying of the NSA on ordinary Americans.”

Just after midnight Sunday, three key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire, and it’s unclear whether Sen. Paul’s Senate colleagues can prevent that in response to Paul’s vow to force an end to what he calls “the callous use of general warrants and the disregard for the Bill of Rights.” 

Under Senate rules, he can do that – at least temporarily. Senators are scheduled to meet Sunday, but until the impasse is resolved, the NSA will lose its legal authority to collect and search domestic phone records for connections to international terrorists – the once-secret program revealed by agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Two lesser-known Patriot Act provisions also would expire: one, so far unused, that helps the FBI track "lone wolf" terrorism suspects unconnected to a foreign power, and another that allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who continuously discard their cell phones.

Speaking to reporters Friday, President Obama said, "Heaven forbid we've got a problem where we could have prevented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who is engaged in dangerous activity but we didn't do so simply because of inaction in the Senate.”

In his weekly radio address Saturday, Mr. Obama urged passage of the USA Freedom Act, which the House of Representatives has already approved with bipartisan support.

“It ends the bulk metadata program – the bulk collection of phone records – as it currently exists and puts in place new reforms,” Obama said. “The government will no longer hold these records; telephone providers will. The Act also includes other changes to our surveillance laws – including more transparency – to help build confidence among the American people that your privacy and civil liberties are being protected.”

But it’s not simply a matter of the Senate approving the House-passed bill thereby averting the Sunday midnight showdown. Paul – or any other senator – can delay a vote past the deadline for those key provisions of the Patriot Act to expire, at least for several days.

This is a problem for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Paul’s fellow Kentucky Republican. Sen. McConnell wants to just extend the Patriot Act and its data-collection provision, but most senators want to go ahead with the USA Freedom Act.

Even if the Senate were to approve the measure without changes and Obama were to immediately sign it, Paul could – and says he would – block it. And if the Senate were to make any changes to the bill, it would have to go back to the House. In both scenarios, the midnight deadline passes without extending or replacing the Patriot Act provisions.

In a statement to Politico and in a signed online column in Time, Paul emphasizes that he supports positive reforms to US intelligence gathering designed to avert another terrorist attack.

“I would take the billions spent on collecting records of suspicionless Americans and spend it instead on FBI agents to monitor suspects who have given probable cause that they are a danger to us,” he wrote in Time. “In the recent jihadist attack in Texas, one of the terrorists was well known to authorities. He had already been convicted of a terrorism charge. I would spend more money and more time developing probable cause warrants to delve deeply and effectively into individuals like this.”

In the end – perhaps toward the end of this week – the Senate is likely to pass some version of the House’s USA Freedom Act, and the collection of phone data will continue, although in a form that gives the impression at least of being less intrusive than the Patriot Act.

Until then, Rand Paul says he is “ready and willing to start the debate on how we fight terrorism without giving up our liberty,” as he does in his statement to Politico.

“Sometimes when the problem is big enough, you just have to start over,” he said. “I do not do this to obstruct. I do it to build something better, more effective, more lasting, and more cognizant of who we are as Americans.”

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