Hours from a midnight deadline for contested anti-terror surveillance measures to expire, no solution was in sight as the Senate convened an extraordinary Sunday session to hash out a way forward. Intelligence officials warned that failure to act would amount to a win for terrorists.
Senators had only one option to keep the counter terror measures alive past midnight: agree to a House-passed bill remaking a disputed bulk phone records collection program, and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the House bill but seemed likely to agree to it in the absence of other options, perhaps with amendments.
But Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul announced he planned to stand in the way of a final vote Sunday, and under Senate rules giving great power to individual lawmakers, his colleagues were powerless to stop him.
Even though Paul could do no more than delay final passage of the bill for a handful of days, it would be enough to force a shutdown, at least temporarily, over the once-secret phone bulk phone records collections program made public by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was unsparing in his criticism of McConnell as the Senate gaveled into session Sunday, blaming him for the Senate’s failure to resolve the issue well ahead of the deadline.
“The majority leader should have seen this coming. Everyone else did,” Reid said on the floor. “The job of the leader is to have a plan. In this case, it is clear that the majority leader simply didn’t have a plan.”
For his part, McConnell devoted his opening remarks on the floor to the passing of Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau. Senate Republicans prepared to meet behind closed doors after which McConnell was expected to detail his preferred way forward.
Minutes before the Senate began its session, House Speaker John Boehner issued a brief but strong statement warning of the impact if the surveillance parts of the Patriot Act expire.
“Al-Qaida, 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,” said Boehner, who urged the Senate to pass the House bill, which would phase out the bulk collection program over six months and give phone companies the job of maintaining records the government could search for terror connections.
In addition to the bulk phone collections provision, two lesser-known Patriot Act provisions also lapse at midnight: one, so far unused, helps track “lone wolf” terrorism suspects unconnected to a foreign power; the second allows the government to conduct “roving” wiretaps to eavesdrop on suspects who continually discard their cellphones.
CIA Director John Brennan was among those warning that letting the authority to conduct the surveillance programs lapse will make Americans less safe.
Report by Associated Press.
Mark Kagan on the US Patriot Act debate
For an analysis of the debate over the US Patriot Act, CCTV’s Susan Roberts spoke to Mark Kagan. He’s a former US Intelligence Analyst; now with the International Strategic Studies Association.