Senate advances PATRIOT Act extension

By a cloture vote of 79 to 18, the Senate today, as expected, moved a four-year extension of key provisions of the PATRIOT Act closer to a final vote.

The vote results come as no surprise, but they do continue a notable episode on the Senate floor. The sparring between Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has sparked interest in an issue that otherwise might have prompted little new discussion.

The disagreement between the two senators has been as much procedural as positional. Reid promised a full week of debate and an open amendment process, but later balked when time ran short. When Paul complained yesterday about his inability to offer amendments, Reid essentially accused him of single-handedly jeopardizing the nation’s security.

Paul shot back: “I’ve been accused of wanting to allow terrorists to have weapons to attack America … To be attacked of such a belief when I’m here to discuss and debate the constitutionality of the Patriot Act is offensive and I find it personally insulting.”

Now, Reid just might allow a vote on Paul’s most important amendment, after all:

Senate Democratic leadership seems poised to acquiesce to Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) demand that the chamber vote on an amendment that would restrict national security officials from examining gun dealer records in their efforts to track potential terrorists.

The Kentucky Republican had been insisting that such language at least receive a vote as an addition to the extension of the USA Patriot Act. As of Wednesday night, it appeared that he would be stymied.

By Thursday morning, however, the landscape had changed and multiple sources on the Hill confirmed to The Huffington Post that a vote on that amendment and one other would happen — likely as a means of expediting passage of the Patriot Act’s extension.

Lost in all of this are the implications of the actual extensions or the lack thereof. Unfortunately, the spat between the two senators has shifted the focus from the PATRIOT Act itself and onto personalities. But Paul, after all, is not the only person to have questioned the constitutionality of the PATRIOT Act. Plenty on the left have attacked the law, as well.

Now more than ever, though, the law is worth defending and extending, as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Patriot Act co-author Nathan Sales wrote in a Politico op-ed today:

As Congress takes up legislation to reauthorize three expiring parts of the Patriot Act, it should take seriously the tea party’s commitment to constitutional fidelity.

Judged by that standard, Patriot passes with flying colors. It just lets counterterrorism agents use some of the same tools that regular cops have used for decades. These tools have exacting safeguards to protect civil liberties, and federal courts have consistently upheld their constitutionality.

The Senate has until midnight tonight to extend the PATRIOT Act — and squabbling shouldn’t stop it. The vast majority of the Senate is on the right side of the actual issue. Vote on Paul’s amendment or don’t, but definitely don’t slow down the extension or risk a lapse in the provisions (and many of Paul’s colleagues — even those sympathetic about Reid’s treatment of him — agree).

While Reid and Paul make drama, King and Sales put it all in perspective: “Osama bin Laden is dead, but Al Qaeda is still very much alive. This is no time to go wobbly in the war on terror.”

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