The odyssey of NSA reform just got a little more complicated. By late yesterday, Mitch McConnell realized that the House has no intention of passing a clean reauthorization of the Patriot Act, neither on a long- or short-term basis, and decided to allow a vote on the House’s reform package, the USA Freedom Act. He bet that the Senate would defeat it, and force the House to come back and reconsider an extension to current law:
To save the Patriot Act’s expiring spying powers, Mitch McConnell is risking letting them die entirely.
And it’s not just one gamble that the Senate majority leader is taking. He’s placing two bets.
By announcing Tuesday that he will allow a vote on a House-passed measure that would effectively end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ call records, McConnell’s grand strategy to block substantive surveillance reform came into clearer focus. …
But McConnell has no desire to see the USA Freedom Act—a measure he repeatedly has denounced as something that could help terrorists kill Americans—pass. Instead, he hopes to watch it fail to accrue the 60 votes necessary to advance. That could jolt more senators toward his preference of extending unhindered the Patriot Act’s three surveillance provisions due to expire June 1.
Such a sequence—a vote on the Freedom Act followed by a vote for a clean renewal—could give McConnell what he wants. But in addition to banking on the Freedom Act’s failure, McConnell is gambling that the Senate can move quickly enough to catch House lawmakers before they skip town Thursday.
In order for that strategy to work, McConnell would have to get to a floor vote quickly. He set up the Senate agenda to allow for the introduction of the House bill with that intent, but another opponent of NSA reform may have derailed the strategy:
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) blocked a move from Republican colleague Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on Tuesday to bring up the House-passed USA Freedom Act, which would reform the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices.
Lee took to the Senate floor to try and set aside fast-track trade legislation currently being debated and move to the NSA reform bill. …
Cotton, as well Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), want to pass a “clean” extension of the Patriot Act, including Section 215 which the NSA uses to justify its phone records program.
The Arkansas Republican, objecting to Lee’s request to bring up the NSA reform bill, said the Senate will have time after the trade debate to take up the issue.
“There will be a time for the debate because it is the most important thing we could be debating in the United States Senate,” he said.
Well, actually, they don’t have time for it, not if McConnell wants to send it back to the House with a majority opposing it ahead of the House recess. McConnell thinks a failed floor vote will force House leadership to reconsider their refusal to extend the current Section 215 surveillance authorization, but that won’t happen if the Senate refuses to consider it at all. McConnell needs the thumbs-down to make his argument that the House needs to work harder at it; a technical obstruction such as the one Cotton has made will only reinforce the House’s argument that the Senate needs to do its job before telling the House to do its work all over again.
Besides, it still misreads the House to think that they can pass a clean Section 215 reauthorization. It took some effort to get a bipartisan majority for the USA Freedom Act, as many in the House wanted to kill the program outright. A recent court decision ruling it too broad in its current form only made the near-impossible an even more remote outcome. Even a majority vote opposing the House reform won’t incentivize too many to change their minds in the direction of the status quo at NSA, especially not after the cascade of lies that Obama officials told Congress about it over the last two or three years.
For the moment, then, the clock is ticking but nothing else is moving. That makes it less an odyssey than a paralysis.