A protest led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over extending expiring provisions of the Patriot Act threatens to momentarily suspend the federal government's authority to conduct surveillance on terrorism suspects that the Obama administration said Wednesday must not lapse.
The bill is expected to be approved by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of the Senate, but the conservative Kentucky senator is running out the debate clock as he argues that the Patriot Act gives the federal government too much authority to spy on terrorism suspects. The provisions expire after midnight Thursday, but the protest could push final approval to Friday morning.
President Obama supports extending the act for another four years, as is proposed, and the director of national intelligence warned Wednesday that if there was a lapse, "even for the briefest of time, the nation will be less secure."
The administration has struggled this year to continue the surveillance authorities in the act, which was put in place after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorism attacks. A loose alliance of liberal Democrats and conservatives, many of them newly elected Republicans backed by "tea party" activists, characterize the act as an unconstitutional overreach into private affairs.
An earlier bill ran into similar resistance in the GOP-led House.
The House is waiting for the Senate to act, and House leaders alerted lawmakers that their planned Thursday adjournment may be postponed until Friday.
The bill would extend three expiring provisions of the act, including one that allows federal authorities to continue eavesdropping when terrorism suspects change phones and another that allows surveillance of foreign suspects even if they have no known affiliation to a terrorist group, called the "lone wolf" provision. A third allows the government to investigate virtually any personal records of terrorism suspects, in what has become known as the library records provision. All require a court order.
Paul wants to offer amendments to rein in the government's reach, including one that would prohibit federal authorities from investigating gun ownership records.
The Senate debate Wednesday became unusually heated.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, said he offered the Kentuckian the chance to offer four amendments, but the gun amendment was a bridge too far.
"He's fighting for an amendment to protect the right – not of average citizens, but of terrorists – to cover up their gun" purchases, Reid said on the Senate floor. "It he thinks that it's going to be a badge of courage on his side to have held this up for a few hours, he's made a mistake."
Paul, who has made hours of speeches this week against the bill, returned to the chamber floor outraged at the leader's "scurrilous accusations."
"To be attacked of such a belief when I'm here to discuss and debate the constitutionality of the Patriot Act is offensive," Paul said.
An agreement was reached to hold a Thursday morning vote, which is expected to advance the bill. But further agreement would be needed to skip the remaining procedural hurdles and allow a final Senate vote before the act expires after midnight. The bill would still need to be acted on in the House.