Sen. Rand Paul filibuster on NSA spy program could backfire

Rand Paul's threat to filibuster on NSA spy program might please backers but backfire with GOP establishment

The looming standoff in Congress over what to do with an expiring domestic surveillance program presents Sen. Rand Paul with a tempting opportunity to vault his profile in an increasingly oversubscribed GOP presidential field.

The question is: Will he take it?

Paul's threat to launch an old-school, talking filibuster this week to block renewal of a controversial government spy program is just what his supporters expect; it would capture national media attention without costing a dime of campaign cash.

But the theatrics of deploying such a rarely used Senate maneuver also underscore the challenges facing Paul's "Defeat the Washington Machine" campaign, and could backfire by pushing him even further out of step with the establishment Republicans he'll eventually need to win the White House.

The filibuster — in which a senator talks nonstop on the floor of the Senate to prevent a vote — has become the Kentucky Republican's signature legislative weapon.

He became a civil libertarian hero in 2013 after holding forth for nearly 13 hours to protest President Obama's drone policies, temporarily blocking the Senate from confirming John Brennan as CIA director. The Twitter hashtag #StandwithRand was born.

A repeat performance could bring the Senate to a standstill, preventing lawmakers from adjourning for the Memorial Day holiday and threatening a National Security Agency program that collects and stores Americans' telephone records.

It would also generate considerable television coverage and social-media commentary for Paul, who would be held out by supporters as taking a principled stance against government snooping that most Americans also oppose.

"There's going to be an irresistible dynamic to this," said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant. "He's already kind of out there on his own. It makes sense strategically, probably, to take it all of the way.... It's probably a pretty delicious opportunity for him."

Last week Paul raised expectations that he was ready for another talk-a-thon. "We will be filibustering," Paul told the Union Leader in New Hampshire. But in recent days he has softened his threats and declined to say exactly what he'll do, saying only that all options remain on the table.

"People are always asking, 'Are you going to filibuster this or filibuster that?'" Paul said Monday during a forum in Philadelphia. "To my mind, there are few times when something rises to the occasion that is so important that you really have to take a stand on that issue."

Abandoning the filibuster would disappoint many of his libertarian followers, who praise Paul's commitment to protecting civil liberties. His campaign website recently unveiled a new T-shirt that says, "The NSA knows I bought this Rand Paul tshirt."

But as a presidential candidate, Paul must now be careful not to alienate mainstream Republican leaders and voters, many of whom are more worried about securing the nation against terrorist threats than government intrusion.

"For voters this is a very complicated issue," said Republican pollster David Winston. "What they're looking for is someone who can walk through what that balance is. The challenge to him is: How does he define that balance?"

Paul's views have put him at odds with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans who want to renew the NSA program and argue it is vital to national security.

Other GOP presidential hopefuls appear ready to use a potential Paul filibuster as a way to portray him as too soft on national defense.

"One day there will be an attack that's successful, and the first question out of everyone's mouth is going to be, why didn't we know about it?" said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who supports extending the program as is. "And the answer better not be because this Congress failed to authorize a program that might have helped us know about it."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a not-so-veiled swipe during a foreign policy address in New Hampshire on Monday at the "intellectual purists worried about theoretical abuses that haven't occurred — instead of the real threats that we've already seen." A former U.S. attorney, he also wants the program extended.

The debate comes as Congress is weighing several options for handling certain post-Sept. 11 surveillance capabilities that were authorized by the Patriot Act and are set to expire at the end of the month.

The House overwhelmingly approved legislation last week that would rein in the NSA program, which was exposed in 2013 by Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the agency.

The House measure, supported by the White House and a bipartisan swath of senators, would end the spy agency's ability to store Americans' telephone records, instead relying on information stored by the phone companies. If the government wanted access, it would need a court order.

But prospects in the Senate are uncertain because of McConnell's support for renewing the existing program, even temporarily. Paul opposes both the House measure and any temporary extension, preferring to end the entire program, which he says is not needed.

With lawmakers scheduled to leave town Thursday for a Memorial Day recess, they have only a few working days left to resolve the standoff. McConnell has warned senators not to make getaway plans because he will keep them at work until it is resolved.

Paul's evolution from 2010 tea party favorite to 2016 presidential contender has forced him to smooth the isolationist foreign policy positions he inherited from his famous father, Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman and presidential candidate.

The younger Paul distanced himself from his earlier proposal to end all foreign aid — including to Israel — and wrote an op-ed on Time.com simply headlined, "I Am Not an Isolationist."

The shift has proven difficult for supporters who wince as he tries to balance his small-government, civil libertarian views with the national security and tough-on-terrorist credentials required of any presidential candidate. "Libertarian-ish" is how Paul describes himself now.

His 2013 filibuster over drones was a rare moment in the Senate, which usually skips the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-style showdowns of days past for a more collegial approach.

The hours-long speech drew in fellow senators and created fans across the nation. But it brought a swift rebuke from the party's veteran defense hawks, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who called the junior senator and his allies irresponsible "wacko birds."

McCain dismissed this week's potential filibuster as little more than a campaign stunt: "He'll get his headline and then we'll move on."

One bright side for Paul: Even as his filibuster divides Republicans, it could also force an uncomfortable wedge between Democratic favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton and her party. Some Democrats are pushing her to take a stand against the surveillance program, and several Democratic lawmakers are on Paul's side on this issue. At least one, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, has also promised to filibuster.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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