Exasperated White House Pushes Senate To Pass Surveillance Reform Bill
Without naming Rand Paul, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest faulted the Kentucky Republican for holding up legislation.
An exasperated White House on Tuesday ratcheted up pressure on the Senate to pass surveillance-reform legislation before intelligence tools considered crucial to national security expire at the end of the month—while appearing to throw a direct barb at Sen. Rand Paul for gumming up the process.
Though he didn't call out Paul by name, White House press secretary Josh Earnest seemed to accuse the Kentucky senator of using the debate over the Patriot Act's sunsetting spying powers to bolster his presidential campaign.
"At some point, the political ambitions of individual members of the United States Senate are going to have to come second to the national security of the United States," Earnest said.
Earnest's comments come after the Senate failed to forge a path forward on dealing with the June 1 sunset of the Patriot Act's spy provisions following a late-night round of votes Friday night into Saturday morning. Those authorities include the controversial Section 215, which the National Security Agency uses to justify its bulk collection of U.S. call data.
House-passed reform legislation known as the USA Freedom Act, which would effectively end the NSA's phone dragnet, failed to advance Saturday, coming three votes short of the 60 necessary to clear a procedural hurdle. A bill to extend the provisions unchanged also failed.
Paul voted against both the Freedom Act and the "clean" extension before he and two other senators blocked Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's efforts to quickly pass several shorter term extensions—even for just one day. The libertarian-leaning presidential candidate staged a 10-and-a-half-hour self-described "filibuster" on the Senate floor earlier last week, while pumping out tweets and campaign emails attempting to solicit fundraising donations.
Paul has repeatedly said the Freedom Act does not go far enough to usher in reforms, and that any extension of the Patriot Act's spying powers is
something he cannot get behind. After holding up votes for several hours, Paul said Saturday morning he wanted to have simple-majority votes on two amendments he wanted to offer to the Freedom Act, but that Senate leadership refused to agree to grant him the lower-than-60-votes threshold.
The Senate will now reconvene on Sunday afternoon, just hours before the spying powers will lapse. Many pro-reform staffers and advocates believe Paul may continue to block any legislation from going forward, including the Freedom Act, unless all his demands are met.
When pressed if the administration had any contingency plan to keep certain programs running if the June 1 deadline passes without a congressional solution, Earnest demurred, later adding: "I'm not aware of any Plan B that exists or is being contemplated."
Administration officials and congressional staffers knowledgeable about the NSA phone-records program have said the program will shut down immediately June 1—and the program already began "winding down" Friday, according to the Justice Department.
But the administration has not ruled out potentially using a "grandfather clause" allowing for ongoing investigations to continue past the expiration to keep other national security tools governed by Section 215 of the Patriot Act up and running.
In addition, the administration is reportedly weighing whether to allow NSA analysts to continue retrieving phone records collected over the past five years in the event the authorities lapse.
Earnest also said that the administration was not getting behind a short-term extension absent reforms, noting that it lacked to support in either chamber of Congress.
"We've seen, and it was embarrassingly clear on the floor of the U.S. Senate Saturday night, that that's not an option," Earnest.
Earlier Tuesday, President Obama told reporters in the Oval Office that senators needed to work out their differences this week in order to stave off a full expiration, while indicating the Freedom Act was likely the only route forward at this late juncture.
"The House of Representatives did its work and came up with what they've called the USA Freedom Act, which strikes an appropriate balance; our intelligence communities are confident that they can work with the authorities that are provided in that act; it passed on a bipartisan basis and overwhelmingly," Obama said. "It was then sent to the Senate. The Senate did not act."
The president added: "You have a whole range of authorities that are also embodied in the Patriot Act that are non-controversial, that everybody agrees are necessary to keep us safe and secure. Those also are at risk of lapsing. So this needs to get done."