Blame Mitch McConnell (Not Rand) For Patriot Act Expiration

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Everyone knows Sen. Rand Paul forced the temporary expiration of some key Patriot Act provisions last night. But as the New York Times reports, “he was helped by the miscalculation of Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, who sent the Senate on a weeklong vacation after blocking the House bill before Memorial Day.”

McConnell didn’t like the House bill, preferring instead to simply to reauthorize the Patriot Act. Even as the deadline approached, he seemed to believe the threat of expiration would provide enough leverage to allow him to strong-arm Republicans into authorizing a two-month extension.

He was wrong, and I think this is indicative of a larger problem. I essentially agree with Harry Reid on this one: Although McConnell has done much to get the Senate functioning again, his miscalculation on this national security issue implies a fundamental misreading of his House and Senate colleagues, and a certain amount of hubris in believing that a Republican Senate can force a Republican House to accede to its will.

In a way, this was to be expected. Just as once-great head coaches like Joe Gibbs have struggled in the modern NFL — where free agency and an entitled player mentality has dramatically changed the way the game is played — today’s generation of Republican politicians have changed since McConnell was last in the majority. They are more independent, more libertarian-leaning, and less easily cowed or intimidated by leadership or committee chairmen.

Although this evolution has been a long time coming, there are reasons why McConnell (who, in fending off a 2014 primary challenge, adapted well to this electorally) might not be used to dealing with this legislatively. Senate Republicans didn’t have to pay attention to the House when they were in the minority. But being in the majority is entirely different. Today, Senate Republicans must work with at least six Democrats and the House Republicans to get anything done.

Boehner was forced to deal with some of these same changes a few years ago. House leadership had to adapt. They thought new Members would bend to their will as chairman or Speaker, but they eventually realized the response was a big middle finger. They had to adapt, and over the course of four or five years, Boehner and his staff have adapted. And part of adapting is to admit you don’t have the power you thought you had. A position that was once incredibly powerful has now become a thankless job of cat herding.

Now, it very well could be that the people feeding McConnell his intel on this are to blame for this. McConnell has to manage the entire U.S. Senate, so it’s a lot to expect him to be counting votes and taking the temperature of the House. It could be that he was simply listening to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr — or one of his other top lieutenants on this. Sticking to the NFL analogy, McConnell may have to tap a new offensive coordinator. A miscalculation of this magnitude shouldn’t happen again. As Jerry Glanville said, this is the NFL — and that stands for “Not For Long” when you make these kinds of mistakes.

UPDATE: I wanted to clarify and make a few additional points…

It occurs to me that McConnell’s fundamental flaw was in not realizing that a full re-authorization of the Patriot Act, regardless of the merits, was not politically feasible.

It’s also worth noting that, had there been more time, Rand Paul could not have forced the expiration. But Paul would have taken up valuable time. And, in fairness to McConnell, that time was spent on trade and Iran and Loretta Lynch and sex trafficking issues — which is why I argued last November that he should have simply passed the USA Freedom Act back then.