Obama Presses Senate to Fix Patriot Act

Obama Presses Senate to Fix Patriot Act
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President Obama called on the Senate Tuesday to work through its issues and pass reforms to certain Patriot Act provisions before they expire at midnight Sunday.

But with the Senate out on recess until Sunday afternoon -- following a failed attempt to find a solution on the expiring sections of the Patriot Act last week -- a path forward to beat the deadline remains murky.

The question centers on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is used as the legal justification for the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk telephone metadata collection. Obama reiterated his calls for passage of the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would end that bulk data collection while reauthorizing less controversial parts of the Patriot Act also set to expire at the end of the month. The House of Representatives passed that legislation in an overwhelmingly bipartisan 338-88 vote last week.

“Our intelligence communities are confident that they can work with the authorities that are provided in that act,” Obama said Tuesday. “It passed on a bipartisan basis and overwhelmingly. It was then sent to the Senate. The Senate did not act.”

“This needs to get done,” Obama added. “And I would urge folks to just work through whatever issues can still exist, make sure we don't have, on midnight Sunday night, this task still undone, because it's necessary to keep the American people safe and secure.”

While the House passed the reform legislation by a strong margin, the Senate has yet to find a solution. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, along with a number of Republicans, preferred a full extension of the Patriot Act provisions without any changes. Democrats, along with a number of civil liberties-minded Republicans, preferred the USA Freedom Act, which they considered a fair compromise.

But after a late Friday night Senate session that ran into Saturday morning, the chamber failed to move forward on the House-passed bill, voting 57-42 and falling three votes short of clearing a procedural hurdle. A two-month extension of the provisions, proposed by McConnell as a way to extend the debate without letting the provisions lapse, only got support from 45 senators, with 54 voting against it, falling well short of the 60-vote threshold.

McConnell then proposed renewals of one week, then four days, then two days, and finally just a single day in an attempt to prevent the law from expiring. Sen. Rand Paul, a staunch opponent of the NSA program and 2016 GOP presidential candidate, blocked those attempts, with the support of two other senators seeking to end the data collection.

With the votes failed and a path forward unclear, McConnell sent senators home for the Memorial Day recess. They plan to return Sunday afternoon, just hours before the Patriot Act provisions and the data collection program are set to expire.

Paul, who spoke out against the NSA program for more than 10 hours on the Senate floor last week, has repeatedly said he will do whatever he can to block a reauthorization of the Patriot Act. His opposition could make it difficult for the Senate to reach a solution in the late hours of Sunday before the deadline.

“I'm not backing down. I'm not going to compromise. I'm going to stand and fight until the very last moment -- regardless of the smears and attacks I face,” Paul said in a fundraising email his campaign sent Tuesday.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, following up on Obama’s remarks, pointed out during his briefing Tuesday that McConnell has said the United States is in a “high-threat period” and said he hopes the Senate will act before the deadline.

“Certainly, Senator McConnell understands the stakes here, and that's why we're hopeful that Senator McConnell, being very cognizant of the environment in which our national security professionals are operating, will take the necessary steps to help the Senate pass the USA Freedom Act,” Earnest said. He later added that if the Senate doesn’t act, “then there is no way to prevent those authorities from expiring.”

“The fact is I’m not aware of any sort of Plan B that exists or that’s currently being contemplated,” Earnest said, adding that there would be “significant consequences for the Senate’s failure to act.” 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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