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After rare stumble, McConnell searches for Senate compromise over NSA

Senate Leader McConnell seeks to recover footing after missteps on NSA spying program

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sounded more like a salesman desperate to close a deal than the steely strategist he is known as in Washington.

During last weekend's midnight Senate session, he proposed not one, not two -- but five different stopgap measures to keep the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program running as is, without reforms.

Each one, even a simple 24-hour extension, was met with hostile objections from colleagues who want more protections for Americans' privacy.

The exasperation in the Kentucky Republican's voice was all the more notable because it is so rare.

For the new Republican leader who promised there would be no government shutdowns on his watch, McConnell's inability to muscle through his preferred re-authorization of the once-secret spy program marked his first major setback since becoming majority leader.

McConnell vastly underestimated the willingness of his own Republicans -- in this case, fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the presidential candidate – to buck his plans, even if it meant throwing the chamber's spring schedule into turmoil.

As senators milled around during the disarray, McConnell had no choice but to call it quits for the night.

Now, he has summoned senators back to work for a rare Sunday afternoon session hours before the midnight deadline for the surveillance program to expire.

The leader famous for creating political mazes that only he can navigate appears, this time, to be the one who has lost his way.

“I can't help but think, what comes around goes around,” said James P. Manley, a former longtime Senate aide, most recently to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), now the minority leader.

“This is a guy who has all but driven the Senate into the ground and now he’s suffering a similar fate,” Manley said. “McConnell’s finding first hand how difficult it is to run the Senate in this day and age.”

In many ways, the image of McConnell pleading in the wee hours of the morning to avert a crisis was reminiscent of the first years of Speaker John A. Boehner’s tenure when the House Republican leader showed how hard -- and messy -- it can be to corral troops, even when in the majority.

Most senators want to rein in the NSA program, which collects and stores bulk telephone data on U.S. lines.

But McConnell, who has insisted the government is not spying on Americans, long resisted their efforts -- a position that left him increasingly isolated after Boehner’s House overwhelmingly approved changes.

McConnell gambled that lawmakers would ease off their demands as the deadline neared for the program to expire – or at the very least, he calculated, they would allow a temporary extension to provide some breathing room for the Senate to develop its own bill.

Usually a gambit like that works. Congress has long relied on deadlines, real and self-imposed, to force compromises when none seems possible.

McConnell had successfully used that strategy even before he became majority leader, helping to negotiate the 2012 “fiscal cliff” deal with Vice President Joe Biden, which was approved at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the debt ceiling compromise a year earlier as the nation narrowly escaped a credit default.

This time, though, “it was a serious misreading,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee and a champion of reforms.

A combination of factors were not in McConnell’s favor, including that Paul -- McConnell’s pick for president -- has made shutting down the surveillance program a cause celebre of his campaign.

Even more, McConnell apparently misjudged the growing enthusiasm for reforms after Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosures of the secret surveillance system. He sided instead with the GOP’s defense hawks who want to preserve the program rather than its lively libertarian wing.

“It is what it is,” sighed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “There's a new breed in the Senate.... Some time ago in the Senate, people would sit down and try to work things out; obviously these individuals don’t believe in that.”

Ahead of Sunday’s emergency session, McConnell’s next move remains uncertain. But how he resolves the stalemate could not only prove a pivotal moment in his first year, but determine how much Senate floor time will be left to accomplish other priorities.

The leader, who keeps a famously close counsel, indicated this week he may be willing to consider changes to the spy program. His top Republican ally on the Intelligence Committee has floated suggested reforms.

One idea could be to try to again pass a temporary measure Sunday to buy time for a fuller debate‎.

That would help fulfill McConnell's other main promise upon becoming leader: to fix what many consider a "broken" Senate. He has vowed to loosen the strong-arm leadership that Reid relied on to run the place when Democrats were in control, and return to a more traditional process of moving legislation through committees and allowing “robust” amendment debates on the floor.

But a free-wheeling debate would take days and cut into the schedule that already includes a controversial vote to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Part of what got McConnell into the current tangle was the way Democrats dragged out the floor action on an earlier trade bill, which left him no time for complications on the spy measure as senators expected to flee for the Memorial Day recess week.

More to the point, many who support the NSA compromise already achieved in the House view the new effort as too little, too late.

The House-passed USA Freedom Act enjoys widespread bipartisan support, and many believe it could advance in the Senate if McConnell would let it. It would end the spy agency’s ability to store Americans’ telephone records, and instead require the government to obtain a court order to access data held by the phone companies. It fell just three votes short last weekend.

“The Senate should pass the House bill, and do so before this program goes dark,” said a top GOP aide who was not authorized to discuss the strategy.

One thing McConnell will certainly face Sunday is Paul’s commitment to another showdown.

Paul staged a 10-1/2 hour floor speech against the surveillance system – his campaign site offered special “filibuster” T-shirt packages for the occasion – and he has been advertising Sunday’s round as a boxing match with Obama, who supports the House-passed Freedom Act.

“On Sunday, I'm going to fight to END the NSA's illegal spying program with everything I've got,” Paul tweeted this week. “A spy state showdown is looming for May 31st!”

McConnell is, if anything, an extremely patient man. He credits ability to sit still as a youngster for helping him overcome childhood polio. And he has steadily marked his 30 years in the Senate preparing for a job he always wanted.

On Sunday, that patience will be tested again as McConnell is forced to choose between tolerating open defiance from a man he has endorsed for president, or reasserting control over the body he has vowed to bring back to order.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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