The U.S. Senate is expected to vote Tuesday on whether or not to take up what would be the most significant reform to the Patriot Act since 2001, and the nascent GOP presidential horse race is already looming large in this vote. That’s because likely 2016 foe Ted Cruz is an original co-sponsor of the bill, while Rand Paul is publicly opposing it.
On the surface the USA Freedom Act, introduced by Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy — and co-sponsored by Republicans Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Dean Heller — is an almost perfect compromise. It removes the most odious aspects of the Patriot Act (it bans the bulk collection of phone records, for example), while preserving provisions security experts believe are needed to keep Americans safe. Diverse outside groups on the right and the left support it (I’m hearing the NRA and the ACLU, for example), as do tech entrepreneurs from companies like AOL, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, etc. (they want to keep their consumers happy) and various privacy advocates.
But the bill is in danger of dying if it fails to attract the 60 votes needed for cloture, a possibility that could force a high-stakes vote next year over whether or not to reauthorize The Patriot Act, which is set to expire on June 1. If that happens, the potential for partisan posturing and political one-upmanship will be even greater, and the consequences of failing to reauthorize could be even graver.
The problem for advocates of the bill hoping to attract enough Republican votes is that they are fighting a two-front war. Sen. Rand Paul is suggesting he can’t support it because it unnecessarily reauthorizes the entire Patriot Act. This is true. But what the USA Freedom Act does do is gut the act — specifically the part that allows for the bulk collection of telephone meta-data.
Meanwhile, hawks like Sen. Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell are opposing it because they want to reauthorize the Patriot Act in full — and ostensibly oppose even moderate efforts to weaken the surveillance state.
Were it not for the fact that this is a tremendously important national security bill, one could get much enjoyment from watching the political machinations taking place here. McConnell is attempting to see how he can sway his caucus, and you’ve got Paul trying to outflank Cruz on the right (or, depending how you see it, Cruz outflanking Paul as the national security guy).
But when one considers the seriousness of this issue, one is left with this realization: If the Senate can’t pass this bill — which appears to be a political and policy winner for everyone — it’s hard to imagine them getting much else done before January. And even then, one could argue that it only becomes tougher.