With the Patriot Act set to expire on June 1, and the bill that aims to replace and reform it facing razor-thin opposition in the Senate, the White House is ratcheting up the pressure on Republicans to pass the USA Freedom Act. On Thursday morning, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe to explain the risks involved in failing to pass the legislation, and to place the blame squarely on Republicans.
Over the weekend, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) blocked several short-term extensions of the Patriot Act, while 41 Republicans (including Paul) and Sen. Angus King (I-ME) sustained a filibuster on the bill that reforms it. Until recently, the Obama administration has conspicuously threaded the needle between pressuring Congress to act, and managing the sense of peril that pressure entails. Josh Earnest has consistently punted on questions about the risk of allowing the Patriot Act to expire without passing the reform legislation, and on Tuesday, President Obama walked a thin line on this as well:
I strongly urge the Senate to work through this recess and make sure that they identify a way to get this done. Keep in mind that the most controversial provision in there, which had to do with the gathering of telephone exchanges in a single government database -- that has been reformed in the USA Freedom Act. But 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. And I would urge folks to just work through whatever issues can still exist, make sure we don't have, on midnight Sunday night, this task still undone, because it's necessary to keep the American people safe and secure.
On Thursday morning, however, "necessary to keep us safe and secure" turned into "we are at risk," a subtle but significant rhetorical shift. In that interview with Morning Joe, Josh Earnest also explained the reforms that the USA Freedom Act makes to bulk data collection, while also resisting Scarborough's attempts to conflate the Patriot Act with the reform bill:
"Because of this squabbling we're seeing in this divided Republican party in the Senate, we are at risk, and it is unnecessary risk to be subjecting the country to. It's time for Republicans in the Senate to actually put the national security interests and the civil liberties of the American people ahead of their political ambition."
"...The reforms are that previously, the federal government has been collecting this bulk data, these are the information related to phone numbers dialed, the length of the call, that kind of information, not the substance of the conversation but the data associated with it. This is information that the government will no longer hold. This will be information that will continue to be held by the telecom companies, and when necessary, the government can go to a judge, and get approval from a judge to search the data being held by telephone companies."
That reform has always been the simplest, most reasonable solution to the problem of bulk data collection (such as it is), but until recently, it has been a non-starter with Republicans. Now, there are twelve Republicans willing to vote for this reform, and for some reason, Rand Paul is not one of them. If he and two other Republicans can't find a way to take yes for an answer, Republicans are at risk of being blamed for allowing the other provisions Earnest spoke of to lapse. Voting to extend the Patriot Act, aside from the court ruling that makes the bulk data collection illegal, doesn't provide them any political cover, because there isn't even a simple majority to support that.
It's unclear just how useful the metadata program really is in preventing terrorism, but the reforms in the USA Freedom Act are a win-win for Republicans, who can still get access to those precious phone bills, but no longer have to listen to bleating about the NSA targeting suspicious pizza delivery patterns. Faced with the alternative of getting beaten up over national security, the only thing they have a chance at running on in 2016, this is a no-brainer.