As the weekend expiration date looms for some of the Patriot Act's most notorious provisions, Mitch McConnell's refusal to allow time for a Senate debate has led to a filibuster-style protest, an 11th-hour session, and some unlikely partnerships. Bob speaks with Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, about the options open to legislators as the June 1st deadline nears.
Speaker: The Senator from Kentucky...
Rand Paul: There comes a time - there comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer. That time is now. And I will not let the Patriot act, the most un-patriotic of acts, go unchallenged…
BOB: That’s Senator Rand Paul last week, embarking on an unofficial 10-and-a-half hour filibuster to force a vote on the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act.
Rand Paul: My voice is rapidly leaving, my bedtime has long since passed, and I think its time we summarized why we're here today and what my hope is for the future with this issue...
BOB: Now, a filibuster typically serves to prevent a vote, but Paul’s peroration -- unleashed during a discussion of an unrelated trade bill -- was a protest against the unwillingness of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentucky Republican, to even schedule a debate about the expiring provisions. McConnell wants to extend those provisions. Paul fervently disagrees. And he’s joined in that by such unlikely bedfellows as Tea Party Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Ron Wyden.
Ron Wyden: I thank my colleague, and it is good to be back on the floor with him once again, on this topic. And as we have indicated, this will not be the last time we are back on the floor...
BROOKE: We spoke to Senator Wyden last week about the impending standoff.
Ron Wyden: Of course it is a dangerous world; if you've been on the Intelligence Committee, you know that. But that's not a reason for reauthorizing a program that does not make America safer and impinges on our privacy. And so what I've been telling my colleagues is, we've gotta recognize that the status quo caucus -- really the leadership of the Senate Republicans -- they're just expecting people to blink. And I'm not going to blink in the face of a flawed, misguided law that does not make us safer and compromises our liberties.
BROOKE: Wyden supports the Freedom Act, that would prevent the government from collecting our phone data - the matter at issue here - but would still allow the government some access to it under certain circumstances. And so does a majority of both Houses of Congress. But as the clock ticks down to Sunday’s midnight deadline, and deals are made behind the scenes (maybe), we onlookers see nothing but glimpses of what seems to be a petrified forest...of gabardine. Bob, you live pretty close to the nation’s capital, what’s going on in there?
BOB: I don’t know. But maybe Susan Page does. She’s Washington bureau chief of USA Today. Susan, welcome to the show.
Susan Page: Oh Bob, it's great to be with you.
BOB: The latest is is that the Senate will convene 4pm on Sunday for final negotiations, giving them exactly 8 hours to get something done. Can you lay out their options?
Susan Page: Basically they've got three options. One is to extend the current provisions. That's what the senate majority leader Mitch McConnell wants to do, but he can only get 45 votes for that. So that doesn't look like its going to fly. The second thing they could do is pass the USA Freedom Act, which the House already has passed, which allows the mass collection of telephone metadata, as is going on now, but it provides that the telephone companies keep it, not the government, and it sets up a process by which the government would ask to search that data. That's passed the House, that's supported by a majority of the Senate, but not enough to get over a filibuster. And the third thing they can do is do nothing! If that happens, the Patriot Act provisions lapse and that program goes out of existence.
BOB: Meantime, the White House, particularly through Attorney General Loretta Lynch, is saying, we almost don't care what you do, but do something. What happens if the Patriot Act provisions for mass data gathering expire. Does the NSA just turn off the lights?
Susan Page: The administration says they will start the wind down of the program at 4pm on Sunday so that it would be closed down by midnight when the authorization for this program would expire. It's not the main thing the NSA does. The surveillance that the NSA provides would certainly go on. And while the administration has argued this is a crucial program, they have at the same time been unable to point to a single terrorist incident that has been undermined by the use of this mass collection of data. And I think that it's hurt them in the argument that its really urgent to extend the program, that it would be catastrophic if it expired.
BOB: And speaking of catastrophic, that was exactly the word that was flying around Capitol Hill back in 2001. Even in that environment, everything was done, as we've heard in this hour, so haphazardly. And, here we are again.
Susan Page: You know, what this tells me is how different the climate is now than it was immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Because at that point, as you say, there was an incredible impetus to do anything that might help protect citizens of the United States against terrorist attacks. You know, there's still the threat of terrorism here but now there is much more of an effort to find where the balance is between protecting personal liberties and protecting against terrorism. We are in a different place as a country than we were right after 9/11.
BOB: There's also questions as to why Rand Paul would ride this bill right over a cliff. Is it because he is a libertarian and objects to any kind of government intrusions into our lives, or is it because he's running for president?
Susan Page: Rand Paul has been pretty consistent in standing up against these kinds of programs. But then again he's also running for president and while he was doing what was not technically a filibuster but it sure looked like a filibuster, his campaign was sending out fundraising appeals based on this. So I think it has excited his base but it is, to be fair, completely consistent with the positions he has taken ever since he came to the Senate.
BOB: One final thing Susan. We are speaking Thursday afternoon. Congress isn't expected to act before Sunday night. Uh, just tell me what's going to happen.
Susan Page: Generally the safe bet, when you're dealing with Congress and a big issue in which there's a division, is to bet on inaction. The only way in which something gets done quickly is if Mitch McConnell concedes that his extension is not going to go forward. If he throws his support behind the USA Freedom Act that the house has already passed - if that happens, then you could see action.
BOB: Rand Paul can't crater this thing all by himself?
Susan Page: Rand Paul can try to mount a filibuster, he could possibly delay it for a while, but you get three more votes and yes he'd be able to go ahead and override the objection. To the people like Rand Paul, the path that people see for there to be action on this is if Mitch McConnell wants to change his position on this issue. But I think it's all up to him.
BOB: You know this guy, he has dug his heels in so far, he has vowed not to compromise, not to surrender. But there's also a lot of pressure on him from his own caucus. Is there a chance that he can be sweet talked or coerced into coming around?
Susan Page: One of the things that we've heard some of his people talk about is trying to adjust the House version of the bill. So it meets some of the Senate objections. And I'll tell you, the people in the House side say they like the bill they've passed, it involves balancing interests from people of different sides, its got bipartisan support, so they have not been interested in offering the kind of gestures that might let Mitch McConnell claim a partial victory. You know, in ordinary times, when things were not so gridlocked, it would be no surprise that members of Congress would be able to find a deal on something like this, someplace in the middle. It's just that lately we've gotten out of the habit of doing that.
BOB: Have we ever. Susan thank you so much.
Susan Page: Bob, it's been a pleasure.
BOB: Susan Page is Washington bureau chief for USA Today.