Unable to muster enough votes to either approve a House-passed reform of terrorist surveillance laws or push forward on a GOP alternative, the Senate left town for an extended break early on Saturday morning, with the clock running out on several provisions of the Patriot Act that expire on June 1.
“My colleagues, do we really want this law to expire?” said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who led Republican opposition to the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan reform bill that had won easy House approval earlier in May.
“We’ve got a week to discuss it,” McConnell said as Senators ran into gridlock after midnight on Friday night.
The Senate voted 57-42 to push forward with the USA Freedom Act – but 60 votes were needed for that measure; a separate vote on a GOP plan failed on a 45-54 vote.
12 Republicans voted to proceed on the USA Freedom Act; all Democrats voted in favor of that plan as well.
House members of both parties bitterly blamed the Senate for the impasse, arguing their bipartisan plan deserved approval.
“The Senate has failed to make the important reforms necessary, jeopardizing Americans’ civil liberties and our national security,” said a bipartisan group of supporters in an early morning statement.
What happens next? Since the Congress is on break this coming week, the clock will tick down to the June 1 expiration of the several provisions of the Patriot Act – while lawmakers are out of town.
The Senate will return on Sunday May 31, but the House is not scheduled to return until June 1, after the provisions have already expired – and there is no guarantee of a deal on a short term extension of current law.
That’s the desired approach for McConnell and most Senate Republicans – a simple extension of the current Patriot Act to give more time for negotiation.
But for a many Senators, there was a much simpler course.
“It is time for Republican leadership to allow the USA FREEDOM Act to receive an up or down vote,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “The majority of the Senate wants to pass it and send it to the President.”