The National Security Agency's (NSA) ability to collect the phone records of Americans in bulk expired late Sunday night, despite the Senate having begun a debate to reform the program.
In an unusual Sunday congressional session, lawmakers' arguments to extend the surveillance and anti-terror provisions in the Patriot Act expire failed, although the expiration of program will likely be temporary.
Lawmakers voted to begin debate on the USA Freedom Act, which would place an end to the government's bulk collection of phone records but still let authorities access records from the phone companies. The procedural measure needed 60 votes to pass.
The House passed the reform legislation earlier this month, but the Senate blocked the bill and several short-term extensions of the existing program, which is part of the Patriot Act, last weekend. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, opposes the bipartisan USA Freedom Act and urged his colleagues to pass a simple extension of the program, at least temporarily.
McConnell set up another procedural vote on the legislation for Tuesday.
The Senate is expected to pass an amended version of the USA Freedom Act later this week. If an amended version passes it then goes back to the House for consideration. The Senate is expected to reconvene on Monday.
But after a week and facing the June 1 deadline for the program to expire, McConnell was not able to corral enough support to simply continue the NSA's surveillance, which is codified under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Seventy-seven lawmakers voted to begin debate on the USA Freedom Act, versus 17 who opposed it, all Republicans. Six senators did not vote.
Still, the Senate will not be able to get the bill to President Obama's desk before midnight due to opposition from Paul. The Republican said Sunday that he would force the bulk phone data collection to expire. During a heated back and forth on the Senate floor Sunday afternoon, Paul defended his continued opposition.
"The people who argue that the world will end and we will be overrun by jihadists tonight are trying to use fear. They want to take just a little bit of your liberty but they get it by making you afraid," Paul said. "They tell you if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. That's a far cry from the standard we were founded upon -- innocent until proven guilty."
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McConnell was visibly angry with Paul, who he has endorsed for president. Without referencing the junior Kentucky senator by name, McConnell accused him of a "campaign of disinformation" for suggesting that the NSA is collecting more data about Americans that the administration lets on. McConnell said a total expiration of the Patriot Act would be "worrying" and a "totally unacceptable outcome."
McConnell's move to extend the debate over NSA surveillance to the deadline gave Paul an opening to talk about an issue about which he's been passionate for years. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, jumped at the chance to point it out on the Senate floor, saying, "We're not in the mess today because of the Junior Senator from Kentucky! We are in the mess we are today because of the Majority Leader. The Majority Leader should have seen this coming. Everyone else did. Even those in his own party!"