By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
PHILADELPHIA — As his fellow Republican Kentucky senator, Mitch McConnell, pushes this week to reauthorize the Patriot Act, Rand Paul took his presidential campaign to Independence Mall on Monday and said he’d do whatever he could to kill the law and the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
“One senator came up to me and said, ‘If you defeat the Patriot Act, what will happen? How could we possibly survive?'” Paul said on a muggy afternoon, outside the Philadelphia hall where the Constitution was adopted. “And I said, ‘Maybe, just maybe, we could rely on the Constitution for a few hours.'”
Paul’s vow to fight the Patriot Act sets up a showdown with McConnell, and it’s an important moment for his campaign. Polls show Paul mired in the middle of a crowded field of Republican contenders, and he’s hoping his threat to filibuster over the mass collection of phone records will bring back the excitement of the 13-hour anti-drone talkathon on the Senate floor two years ago that launched him into national prominence.
“If he pulls this off, I think it will be important in reminding the libertarian/civil liberties-leaning people what it was they liked about this guy in the first place,” said Brian Doherty, senior editor at the libertarian Reason magazine and author of a book about Paul’s father, former presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Rand Paul, who said he intended to filibuster the provision, said this week’s battle over reauthorizing the Patriot Act would be “a great and momentous debate” over the Constitution’s right to privacy. The act, which passed by lopsided margins following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, handed largely unchecked powers to federal investigators to combat terrorism. Since then some courts have found provisions unconstitutional.
But Paul didn’t sound confident of winning. It would take 60 votes in the Senate to defeat his filibuster, but he said, “The rules are tricky in the Senate.”
“We do not have the votes to ultimately defeat the Patriot Act. I can delay it. … What I will demand is we have time on the floor to debate this, and I will demand that amendments that we put forward are given a chance on the Senate floor,” Paul said, surrounded by a crowd of youthful supporters.
Paul’s position on the Patriot Act puts him at sharp odds with his rivals for the Republican nomination. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the National Security Agency’s data collection program important for protecting the nation’s security, and “the best part of the Obama administration.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has also defended the program, as has South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wants changes to the program but doesn’t go as far as Paul. Paul said he’d offer amendments with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who’s also threatening a filibuster.
Time is running out for the Patriot Act, making Paul’s filibuster threat far more effective. Section 215, used to justify the bulk collection of phone data, is set to expire June 1, as is the “lone wolf” provision, meant to surveil targets not directly connected to terrorist cells, and a measure that allows the government to use roving wiretaps to track suspects who switch phones or locations.