The full Senate will soon take up the question of renewing Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, a curious move in two aspects. First, the bill would undercut efforts at reforming the NSA’s mass-trawling of communications data, two years after the extent of the surveillance got exposed by Edward Snowden. The move has angered members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who back reform of the agency’s mandate, whom Mitch McConnell bypassed to move the reauthorization bill:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill Tuesday night to extend through 2020 a controversial surveillance authority under the Patriot Act.
The move comes as a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both chambers is preparing legislation to scale back the government’s spying powers under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
It puts McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the bill’s co-sponsor, squarely on the side of advocates of the National Security Agency’s continued ability to collect millions of Americans’ phone records each day in the hunt for clues of terrorist activity. …
In filing the bill, McConnell and Burr invoked a Senate rule that enabled them to bypass the traditional committee vetting process and take the bill straight to the floor. No date has been set for such consideration.
Curiosity #1: Republicans have been almost as skeptical as Democrats about the NSA’s powers, in part because of the IRS scandal involving the targeting of conservatives attempting to exercise political action. The pro and con sides to NSA reform do not break down along partisan or ideological lines, and even the White House has felt the tension between public safety and fear of Big Brother enough to pay lip service to reform.
Why jump the line to get the Section 215 reauthorization vote ahead of the newly formed 114th Session’s Judiciary Committee’s proposals to reform it? Not only will that likely require a specific cloture vote needing 60 votes, it’ll still need to get a majority in the House, and the lower chamber will definitely be inclined to wait for a more significant reform attempt.
Curiosity #2: McConnell started off this session of Congress promising a return to normal order, and has largely delivered. Chris Cillizza noted yesterday that “Congress is actually working,” a welcome change from the Harry Reid days of bypassing committee processes, refusing to budget, and filling amendment trees:
Suddenly, Congress is actually doing things. Making compromises. Passing legislation. Confirming people. …
“Following the collapse of the Grand Bargain talks in the summer of 2011, Reid essentially shut down the Senate (presumably at President Obama’s request) until after the presidential election. . . . Now, McConnell is making the Senate work again, and President Obama (in the final quarter of his presidency) would like some sort of second-term legacy. So things are moving.”
It’s not just Republicans who are blaming Reid. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who announced this week that he will seek reelection in 2016 rather than run for governor, took a shot at Reid’s tenure as leader, too. “His leadership and the things he thought would work did not,”Manchin said on “Morning Joe.” “So with that, you just move on.”
Cillizza says, “No one could have seen this coming,” but it’s exactly what McConnell promised in 2014 if leadership in the Senate changed hands. He’s making sure he sticks with it in order to give Republicans the argument again in 2016:
Mitch McConnell is building the case that this Senate is much more productive than the last one.
The Kentucky Republican, who ascended to majority leader after repeatedly ripping the Democratic-led Senate as “dysfunctional,” has to show that the GOP can govern. If he falls short of that goal, Democrats will likely win back Senate control in 2016. …
McConnell said Tuesday that rank-and-file Democrats have thanked him privately.
“I think the way the Senate’s being run is very positive, with a significant number of Democrats who have come over to me frequently and say, ‘Thank you for changing the way the Senate is operating,’ ” he said.
Why break that process now, and especially on a clean reauthorization for a program that most Americans don’t trust? The deadline on the reauthorization is approaching, but it’s still a couple of months off. The Judiciary Committee has time to produce an alternative, or failing that, this maneuver could have been held off for a few more weeks and used as a stopgap. This puts his own caucus in the spotlight, as McConnell will need most if not all Senate Republicans to back his play here — including the three running for President — at a time when people trust government less than ever. It’s definitely a curious choice, and a potentially very problematic one.