Republican senator Rand Paul forced at least a temporary shutdown of sweeping US surveillance powers on Sunday night after refusing to allow an accelerated vote on compromise legislation designed to more narrowly restrain the National Security Agency.
In a double blow for Washington security hawks, represented by embattled Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, it now looks likely that Congress will have to wait several days before passing that bill, the USA Freedom Act.
The reform legislation, which bans the NSA from collecting Americans’ telephone records in bulk, was initially opposed by McConnell. But with the clock ticking down toward the midnight expiration of broader powers initially granted after 9/11 under the Patriot Act, Republican leaders had few options but to get behind the bill as the best way of preserving other surveillance authority.
“This is now the only realistic way forward,” said McConnell as he conceded there was no longer time to seek alternatives to a version of the USA Freedom Act that was previously passed by the House of Representatives. Instead, the Senate majority leader is reluctantly embracing the House-passed bill to which he previously objected, only with the addition of what he called “a few modest amendments”.
McConnell’s concession was a tacit acknowledgement that the bulk collection of US phone records exposed in June 2013 by the Guardian, thanks to leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden, will end.
The Senate voted 77 to 17 to proceed to debate on the USA Freedom Act. Even Paul, after the procedural vote, conceded that the bill will ultimately pass. “Tonight begins the process of ending bulk collection,” he said.