Whether it was technically a filibuster or not hardly mattered Wednesday, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) seized the Senate floor to fight renewal of a controversial domestic surveillance program by doing what he has come to do best: talking.
At 1:18 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday, Paul, the libertarian-leaning presidential contender, stood at his Senate desk before an otherwise empty chamber and began to speak out against a National Security Agency spying program that will expire at the end of the month if Congress fails to act.
“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer,” Paul said as a few tourists in the gallery looked on. “That time is now.”
The 52-year-old Kentucky senator wrapped it up at 11:48 p.m., his speech clocking in at 10 1/2 hours. His aides had said he planned to hold forth until he could talk no longer, but the outcome didn't quite match his 13-hour filibuster in 2013 against the Obama administration’s drone program.
It was uncertain whether his maneuver could be accurately described as a filibuster, whether it would do anything to shut down the domestic surveillance program, and whether the talk-a-thon would result in any meaningful delay of Senate business, which is the traditional definition of the legislative tactic.
Though civil libertarians heralded Paul as a hero, skeptics dismissed his move as symbolic at best, largely aimed at boosting fundraising for his nascent presidential campaign.
Paul’s speech came as Congress raced against a June 1 deadline over what to do about an NSA program that collects and stores records of Americans’ telephone calls.
The House overwhelmingly approved a measure last week that reins in some aspects of the surveillance program by requiring the government to rely instead on the phone companies to keep the data, which would then be accessible to the government only with a court order. But the Senate’s Republican leadership under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky opposes the House measure and wants to extend the NSA program as is.
Paul rejects both approaches and advocates ending the program entirely. Though few of his fellow lawmakers are willing to go that far, a steady stream of senators from both parties joined him on the floor in support of restraints on domestic surveillance.
If Congress fails to extend the program in the coming days, the NSA will have to begin shutting down its data-collection process by Friday, according to a Justice Department memo sent to lawmakers on Wednesday.
Though the program would not technically expire until June 1, the NSA would need to start the process to close it down sooner “to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection” of phone records, Justice Department officials warned.
FBI Director James B. Comey has said in recent days that congressional inaction would put at risk other crime-fighting tools the bureau needs to fight terrorism.
He said the current NSA program allowed the FBI to get court orders for data on individual suspects, and to conduct surveillance of so-called lone-wolf suspects who are not linked to foreign terrorist groups — both of which would be barred if the program ends. Losing those tools, Comey said in a speech Wednesday at Georgetown University, would cause “a big problem.”
Paul’s maneuver Wednesday has little immediate effect on the spy bill itself, instead interrupting proceedings on an unrelated trade measure that is a priority for the Obama administration.
The trade bill, which would give Obama broader powers to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership and similar accords, is scheduled for a vote Thursday, and it was doubtful that Paul would talk long enough to stop it.
If Paul were to speak until past midnight Wednesday, he would cause only a minor delay in a procedural vote on the trade bill.
As his filibuster two years ago did, Paul’s speech prompted a robust debate — not on spying or drones, but on what exactly constitutes a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style filibuster.
The answer, it turns out, is subjective. “Whether a filibuster is present is always a matter of judgment,” wrote the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in a 2014 report to lawmakers.
For Paul, though, there was no doubt about his intentions.
“I’ve just taken the Senate floor to begin a filibuster of the Patriot Act renewal. It’s time to end the NSA spying!” he said on his Twitter account.
He appears to have determined that the political rewards of holding true to his civil libertarian sensibilities overpower any risks he faces as a presidential candidate trying to appeal to a wider swath of Republicans and other voters who may not support his actions.
But perhaps in an effort to avoid antagonizing his Senate colleagues, Paul carefully timed his protest for Wednesday, when it would fill a lull in proceedings and not delay important votes on the NSA program or the trade bill, which leaders hoped would happen on Thursday before Congress adjourns for the holiday break.
Several senators joined Paul on the floor as early reinforcements, giving the senator a chance to rest his voice while they asked questions that sometimes lasted for 30 minutes or more. Otherwise, he paced at his desk, flipping through an old-fashioned three-ring binder of notes, and kept talking.
After his 2013 filibuster, which temporarily blocked the confirmation of a new CIA chief, Paul complained that he had not properly prepared, and should have done a few things differently, including wearing more comfortable shoes.
On Wednesday, he sported sensible-looking soft-soled dress-casuals.
Times staff writer Richard A. Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.