WASHINGTON -- Rand Paul, a leader of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, helped kill a bill meant to rein in the National Security Agency. Huh?
The USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), received 58 votes on Tuesday night -- two short of cloture, the magic number in the Senate that allows a bill to proceed to an actual roll call.
The 40 Republicans and one Democrat who voted against cloture mostly did so because they thought the bill went too far. Paul also voted against NSA reform -- because, he said, it didn't go far enough.
Paul said he voted against the bill because it would have extended the Patriot Act provision that allows the NSA to search Americans’ phone records. He has consistently opposed the Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Leahy’s bill extended the provision’s expiration to June 2017 -- as a compromise, in order to change the law to stop the NSA from holding onto phone records. Under Leahy’s bill, that duty would have been handed off to phone companies. The companies' records could only have been searched with a surveillance court's order.
While Paul said he “felt bad” that the bill failed, because it “probably needed my vote," he also claimed the country was "one step closer to restoring civil liberties," because the Patriot Act provision's expiration date will not be extended.
Paul's bedfellows on the vote to kill NSA reform made doomsaying predictions on the Senate floor, saying the legislation would allow Islamic State terrorists to perpetrate another 9/11.
Leahy pleaded with those who had concerns about the bill to allow it to proceed past Tuesday’s cloture vote and try to fix it through amendments. But Paul ignored him, essentially cutting himself off from the chance to add an amendment. NSA reform’s next stop is May 2015 -- the Patriot Act provision’s original expiration date.
It's unclear what will happen then. Civil libertarians saw the bill as their best chance at reform before a GOP majority led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who lashed out Tuesday about the reform bill and the process shepherded by current Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). McConnell's vote against cloture meant he also lost his chance to amend the bill, even though he has repeatedly complained about Reid closing off the amendment process.
The motives of McConnell and Paul may differ -- but Paul's vote against the reform bill conveniently aligns him with the powerful incoming Senate majority leader.
Before McConnell's primary victory against a tea party challenger, Paul held the cards in the relationship. McConnell was so eager to win Paul's support he went so far as to push hard for an amendment that would legalize hemp production.
Now that McConnell is soon to be majority leader, and his longtime lieutenant Steven Law is president of Crossroads GPS, McConnell holds the cards. Paul, who is leaning toward a 2016 presidential bid, would benefit from the support of Crossroads.