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Patriot Act Extension Came Down To The Wire

Congress scrambled to renew three controversial provisions of the anti-terror Patriot Act that otherwise would have expired at midnight Thursday.

Minutes before that deadline, President Obama was awakened in France; there he ordered an automated signing into law of the four-year extension that lawmakers approved.

Things came right down to the deadline thanks largely to the stubborn resistance of one man: freshman Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Paul was not the only senator with grave misgivings about the Patriot Act deal worked out by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

Rather than making its three expiring provisions permanent, as many Republicans would have it, they agreed to extend them another four years but no amendments would be allowed.

That did not sit well with various senators from both parties, but the only one who actually dared to filibuster the deal was Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky.

"Do we fear terrorism so much that we will not have debate?" Paul asked. "Do we fear terrorism so much that we throw out our Constitution, and are we unwilling and afraid to debate our Constitution?"

It was day two of Paul's filibuster, and the majority leader's patience was reaching its limit.

"Let me take a moment to set the record straight," Reid began.

He had agreed to allow half a dozen amendments, most of them authored by Paul. They were aimed at those three expiring provisions: one allowing roving wiretaps, another authorizing the surveillance of so-called "lone wolf" terrorism suspects and a third letting courts order the collection of peoples' private information, if they're suspected of having ties to terrorism.

But Paul wanted still one more amendment. "He is fighting for an amendment to protect the right — not of average citizens, but of terrorists — to cover up their gun purchases," Reid said.

That hit a nerve with Paul, who called Reid's charge "a scurrilous accusation."

"I've been accused of wanting to allow terrorists to have weapons to attack America," Paul said. "To be accused of such a belief, when I'm here to discuss and debate the constitutionality of the Patriot Act, is offensive. I find it personally insulting."

The amendment Paul wanted a vote on would have set the legal bar considerably higher for searching gun registration and sales records.

"They are petrified to vote on issues of guns because they know that a lot of people in America favor the second amendment, own guns, and want to protect the right to own guns, and the right to have those records not sifted through by the government," Paul said.

But the majority leader cast Paul as the one endangering peoples' security. He read from a letter from the national director of intelligence saying there should not be a moment's interruption of the provisions set to expire at midnight Thursday.

"That expiration date is extremely important, and if he thinks that'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," Reid said. "It will set this program back significantly, and that's too bad. The clock is ticking; the ball is in his court."

Minority leader and fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell tried turning up the heat on Paul in a floor speech: "Now is not the time to surrender the tools authorized by this act, or to make them more difficult to use."

Paul responded with e-mails to supporters urging them to tell the Republican leader to stop blocking his amendments. It seemed to work. By late afternoon, a backroom deal had been cut. Paul would be allowed his amendments after all, including the one on guns.

"It took me three days of sitting down here filibustering, but I'm gonna get two amendment votes," Paul said. "I am very happy and I am pleased that we came together to do that."

And there were conciliatory words from the majority leader.

"Even though the senator from Kentucky, Sen. Paul and I have had some differences, what we've done on this legislation has at least helped us understand each other, which I appreciate very much," Reid said.

Later, in a brief interview, Paul sounded equally magnanimous.

"It's hard to dislike Sen. Reid. I mean, really, in person, it is very hard," Paul said.

Both of Paul's amendments lost by wide margins. The four-year extension of the expiring provisions then passed the Senate 72-23. The House too passed it in short order and sent it on to the president.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.