Pushing the government toward a shutdown of its bulk collection of surveillance data, Republican Sen. Rand Paul all but promised to tie the Senate in procedural knots Sunday during a special session to keep the National Security Agency system running past an end-of-the-weekend deadline.
Paul, who has made ending the program a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, announced his intentions Saturday, defying party leaders and a broad coalition of lawmakers who prefer reforming the program.
"There has to be another way," Paul said in a statement. "So tomorrow, I will force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program. I am ready and willing to start the debate on how we fight terrorism without giving up our liberty."
The program's authorization expires at midnight Sunday, but the NSA has already said its complicated shutdown will get underway hours earlier as the Senate convenes Sunday afternoon for a rare session that cuts short its Memorial Day recess week.
Paul, the libertarian-leaning Kentucky Republican, insisted that he was not pulling a campaign stunt but holding true to his principles -- a position emboldened after a federal court ruling found the NSA's program of bulk collection of phone metadata unconstitutional.
But under Senate rules, anything short of swift passage of a House-passed reform bill would take days, if not weeks, leaving the intelligence community without access to information it says is crucial to detecting terrorist plots.
The surveillance program sweeps up the time, date and phone numbers of almost every domestic call, and Paul has long said that is too great a cost. "Sometimes, when the problem is big enough, you just have to start over," he said.
Under Senate rules, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Paul's fellow Kentucky Republican, cannot proceed to legislation unless he has consent of all the senators. Even one objection, like the one from Paul, would force a series of time-consuming procedural steps that would drag on for days.
McConnell had left open the possibility of reconsidering the House bill, the USA Freedom Act. He has opposed the measure, which fell three votes short of advancing last weekend, but it is supported by a wide bipartisan swath of senators and the White House, and many believe it could pass if McConnell let it.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield urged the Senate to pass the bill. "Now is not the time to be playing games with our national security," he said in a statement.
McConnell could have also tried another temporary stopgap measure to keep the surveillance program running while the Senate considered other reforms. But that idea has been met with broad opposition and now seems even more unlikely with Paul's stance.
Democrats sought Saturday to pile on McConnell.
"Senator Paul is only in a position to force the [surveillance program] to expire because of Senator McConnell's reckless, irresponsible tactics and inability to communicate with his fellow Republicans," a spokesman for Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement.
The bulk surveillance program was begun secretly after the 9/11 attacks with the aim of detecting further terrorist activity. After it was revealed, the George W. Bush administration began citing the Patriot Act in 2006 to justify the program.
The call information the NSA gathers, called metadata, is collected without the callers’ knowledge, and without a warrant identifying individuals suspected of wrongdoing.
If the section of the Patriot Act authorizing bulk metadata collection lapses, so too would two other sections of the legislation used by authorities in their search for terrorist plots.
One of them, the “lone wolf” provision, allows authorities latitude to go after individuals who aren’t affiliated with identified terrorist groups.
Another threatened provision allows the FBI to wiretap second phone lines linked to a suspect without requesting a new warrant. Authorities contend that it allows law enforcement to quickly track down suspects.
President Obama warned Friday that if the Senate doesn’t act on Sunday, a terrorist could slip past the intelligence agencies.
“I don’t want us to be in a situation in which, for a certain period of time, these authorities go away and suddenly we’re dark,” he said. “Heaven forbid we’ve got a problem where we could have presented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who is engaged in dangerous activity, but we can’t do so simply because of inaction in the Senate."