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WASHINGTON-Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul pushed the National Security Agency’s spying powers to expire at midnight EDT on Sunday – but not for long.
The Senate voted 77-17 on Sunday night to move forward on a House-passed bill, the USA Freedom Act, that would create an amended phone records program and renew other expiring provisions of the Patriot Act.
Paul was able to use Senate rules to object and prevent a final vote on the bill Sunday night, but the Senate could pass it as soon as Tuesday. So the NSA’s surveillance powers might lapse for little more than a day.
“The Patriot Act will expire tonight. It will only be temporary,” Paul said on the Senate floor. “They will ultimately get their way.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, while not naming his fellow Kentucky Republican Paul, said on the Senate floor that his efforts to renew the NSA spying powers before the deadline were opposed by a “campaign of demagoguery and disinformation.”
Paul, who is running for the Republican nomination for president, said Sunday that his delaying tactics were worthwhile.
“This is a debate over the Bill of Rights, this is a debate over the Fourth Amendment, this is a debate over your right to be left alone,” said Paul, who has made the issue the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, sending out constant fundraising pleas highlighting his fight against the Patriot Act.
Paul said he believes that some in Washington “secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.”
McConnell, who wanted a straight renewal of the NSA spying powers, reluctantly agreed to the House-passed bill, under which phone companies would keep the records rather than the government. The NSA could access the data with a secret court order, but McConnell called it cumbersome and said the phone companies might refuse to keep the records.
After his push to extend the NSA’s existing powers failed, though, McConnell said Sunday that the House-passed bill is “the only realistic way forward” to keep the surveillance program alive.
The bill fell three votes short in the Senate last weekend but won massive support on Sunday with the program hours from expiring and after McConnell said he would push “modest amendments” to the bill.
The House would need to agree to any changes made by the Senate before the bill goes to the president to be signed into law.
President Barack Obama has urged the Senate to agree to the House-passed bill, and CIA Director John Brennan suggested on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that terrorists are watching the Senate argue over the issue.
“I think terrorist elements have watched very carefully what has happened here in the United States, whether or not it’s disclosures of classified information or whether it’s changes in the law and policies. They are looking for the seams to operate within,” Brennan said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. said there’s no evidence that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone data has made a difference in any terror investigation. “It does not make us safer and it threatens our liberties,” said Wyden, who plans to offer amendments to the House-passed bill.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the House bill is a positive move to reform the phone data collection program.
“While it’s positive that an overwhelming majority of the Senate has now joined the House in embracing the necessity of passing these reforms, it’s unfortunate they didn’t do so in time to avoid the interruption of important national security tools,” Schiff said in a written statement.
Paul argued that the House-passed bill would still make it too easy for the NSA to have access to the phone records of ordinary Americans.
He also blocked an attempt by McConnell to renew two less controversial Patriot Act provisions that also were expiring on Sunday night.
One is the “lone wolf” provision meant for spying on targets not directly connected to terrorist cells, and the other would let the government use roving wiretaps to track suspects who switch phones or locations.
“I believe no section of the Patriot Act should be passed unless the targets are terrorists and not Americans,” Paul said.
McConnell, who in November backed Paul’s run for the presidency, said “it’s worrying for our country” that even his efforts to renew those provisions were blocked.
“Because the nature of the threat we face is serious, it’s aggressive, it’s sophisticated, it’s geographically dispersed, and it’s not going away,” McConnell said.
Paul’s attempt to block the Patriot Act sets him apart from the rest of the crowded Republican presidential field. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records has not violated civil liberties and that it helps to “protect the homeland.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.