Senate Republican leaders managed to scrape up enough votes just past midnight Saturday morning to put off decisive action on the NSA’s bulk collection of American phone records until next Sunday, May 31.
But the hardliners — and make no mistake, they are taking an even harder and more absurd line than the NSA itself — have no endgame.
Only two outcomes are possible at this point:
First, three provisions of the Patriot Act — one of which has provided the legal cover for bulk collection — expire on June 1. (Indeed, the Obama administration has already begun the process of winding it down.)
Or second, the Senate passes the USA Freedom Act, which extends those provisions but requires the NSA to request specific records from telecom companies, instead of getting them all.
Fifty-seven senators, only three short of the necessary 60, voted Saturday to invoke cloture and limit debate on the reform bill, itself a milquetoast compromise that won overwhelming bipartisan support in the House. Nothing else has the votes, certainly not a blanket renewal of the Patriot Act, now that the world actually knows how it’s being misused, thanks to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., led a very public yet essentially meaningless quasi-filibuster against the Patriot Act last Wednesday. But early Saturday morning, he and two Democrats — Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico — followed that up with a series of devastatingly effective objections that blocked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attempt to extend the authorities to June 8, then to June 5, then to June 3, then to June 2.
But why are McConnell and his gang “playing chicken,” as White House press secretary put it on Friday? Why create, as Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., accurately called it, a “manufactured crisis“?
Anybody paying attention knows it’s not a policy debate. The reasons McConnell and others cite for wanting to extend the program as is — despite the fact that it’s flatly illegal, essentially useless, and spectacularly invasive — are laughable. In fact, the compromise they’re willing to fight to the death to oppose was actually proposed by the NSA.
The issue is they just don’t want Snowden officially vindicated, by an act of Congress.
Ever since 9/11, the GOP has found huge political gain in exploiting national security fears. And ever since Obama’s election, they have pursued a singularly successful campaign of obstruction, by making Congress almost entirely dysfunctional.
But this time, fear isn’t working, and dysfunction doesn’t get the job done. The Patriot Act provisions in question require an affirmative act of Congress to stay in place.
So although McConnell has managed to extend his fight longer than pretty much anyone anticipated (including me), come May 31, he loses, and Snowden wins.
(This post is from our blog: Unofficial Sources.)
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.