Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul drew important attention to his presidential campaign on Wednesday with what he advertised as a filibuster against the Patriot Act, taking the Senate floor for ten and a half hours as time runs out for Congress to renew the law used for the mass collection of Americans’ phone records.
“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer,” Paul said as he began speaking. “That time is now and I will not let the Patriot Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged.”
Paul was trying to make a big political point on a national stage, and by doing so was putting a needed spotlight on himself. By promoting himself as the champion of civil libertarians, Paul hopes that he can invigorate his often-lagging presidential effort. And by remaining the center of Senate attention for hours, Paul received attention that other Republican colleagues seeking the White House – Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and probably Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – are not getting.
It’s questionable whether Paul’s oration, which started at 1:18 P.M. and lasted until 11:49 P.M. was technically a filibuster because it was not delaying anything. The Senate is working on a trade bill, but the next vote related to the measure isn’t scheduled until later today. So Paul was able to make his point without gumming up the works of legislation in the Senate and angering colleagues anxious to leave for the coming Memorial Day break.
Paul’s staff maintained it was a filbuster and that they believe the performance did push consideration of the Patriot Act back by a day. The Senate is divided about what to do about the Patriot Act anyway, though, and it’s not clear Republican leaders would have scheduled consideration of it before Saturday anyway.
Regardless, Paul’s marathon talkathon allowed him to expound on his opposition to the Patriot Act, as his campaign put out fundraising appeals.
Key provisions of the Patriot Act will expire on June 1 unless Congress acts, including the section used to justify bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
The Justice Department said in a memo circulating through Capitol offices that it will start winding down the phone record collection program on Friday unless there’s action to renew it. It said “the National Security Agency will need to begin taking steps to wind down the bulk telephone metadata program in anticipation of a possible sunset in order to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection or use of the metadata.”
Also expiring on June 1 is the so-called “lone wolf” provision in the Patriot Act, which is meant to allow surveillance of targets not directly connected to terrorist cells, and a provision that allows the government to use roving wiretaps to track suspects who switch phones or locations.
The Justice Department memo said that unless Congress takes action to renew the provisions the NSA won’t be able to use the powers for new investigations – language that suggests they could still be used for intelligence probes launched before the June 1 expiration date in the law.
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would renew the less controversial aspects of the Patriot Act but change the bulk phone collection program. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he’ll allow a vote on that bill but was skeptical it has the needed 60 votes.
If it fails, McConnell intends to propose extending all the existing spying provisions for two months as a stopgap. That might not have the votes to pass either.
“What I think is the most important thing is to make sure we still have a program that works and helps protect the American people from attacks,” McConnell told reporters. “That’s the bottom line here. And we’re going to work toward addressing that this week, and we’ll see how it turns out.”
There’s little time left, especially since the House plans to leave for a week-long Memorial Day break today with the Senate soon to follow.
Paul said on the Senate floor that he’s demanding a chance to offer amendments on the Patriot Act renewal, including one to forbid the bulk collection of phone records.
“There needs to be a thorough and complete debate on whether or not we should allow government to collect all our phone records all the time,” he said.
Paul said he has the support of the public behind him, and pointed to an American Civil Liberties Union poll released Monday that found 60 percent of Americans want to change the Patriot Act, compared 34 percent who want it kept the same.
The Patriot Act, which passed by lopsided margins following the terror attacks of September 2001, handed largely unchecked powers to federal investigators to combat terrorism. An appeals court this month found the mass collection of phone records wasn’t properly authorized under the Patriot Act and is illegal, but the court allowed the program to continue temporarily to give Congress a chance to approve it.
Paul is the only candidate among the Republican presidential field who is calling for a total end to the Patriot Act, although Cruz has supported changes.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the NSA’s data collection program is important for the nation’s security, and even called it “the best part of the Obama administration.”
Rubio and Graham have also defended the program.
Paul started fading toward the end of his 10-and-half-hour speech, shuffling back and forth, and taking more time to compose his thoughts, before finally giving up the Senate floor just before midnight, announcing that “my voice is rapidly leaving, my bedtime has long since passed.”