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Reid Protects PATRIOT Act From Senators Seeking Reform

May 25, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

No matter how hard rank-and-file members of Congress may try to reform it, the PATRIOT Act always seems to get special protection from the leadership. In February when the last PATRIOT Act extension was passed by Congress, the House Republican leadership did all it could, including violating a major campaign pledge on procedural openness, to prevent representatives from having their amendments voted on. Now that it’s up for extension again, it’s the Senate Democrats this time who are using special procedural maneuvers to block senators from offering amendments.

The original PATRIOT Act bill that Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] scheduled for consideration last week is S.1038, an unmodified four-year extension of the government’s expanded surveillance powers. The Senate invoked cloture on proceeding to that bill on Monday afternoon, and several senators introduced reform amendments to it. Irregular Times has a rundown:

These amendments sought to use the extension to reform the Patriot Act. One, by Senator Paul, would have required the government, when seeking a National Security Letter to perform searches and seizures, to go to a court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and a judge’s certification that probable cause sufficient to gain a warrant has been established. Another of Senator Paul’s amendments would have required a district court to issue the equivalent of a search warrant before the seizure of financial records could take place.

Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden of Colorado submitted amendments as well. One amendment would have required that “lone wolf” spying powers, to authorize electronic surveillance without the constitutionally required identification of a particular person or place to be searched, could only target agents of foreign powers. Another of their amendments would have required the government to specify, for roving wiretaps and electronic surveillance, the identity of the target or the location of the target of the surveillance.

Senator Bernard Sanders offered an amendment to S. 1038 protecting libraries and bookstores from having their records seized without a search warrant. Senator Patrick Leahy offered an amendment that would have required the government to establish procedures to destroy or return all evidence gathered through the Patriot Act that is determined not to be relevant to the investigation, rather than keeping the evidence and using the information for other purposes.

Majority Leader Reid, who has voted in favor of extending the PATRIOT Act without modification every time it’s been debated over the years, is blocking all of these amendments from receiving votes by ditching the original bill to which they were submitted, S.1038, making the PATRIOT Act text into a substitute amendment for an unrelated bill, calling up that unrelated bill for consideration, and forcing a vote on his amendment (the PATRIOT Act extension) and no others. The unrelated bill was sent to the Senate via a message from the House, which makes it a privileged that is in order at any time without debate. That automatically rules out any filibusters on proceeding to it. By filing for cloture on agreeing to the House message, which already includes an amendment from the House, with a Senate amendment (the PATRIOT Act extension), no subsequent amendments can be added, as they would technically be considered third-degree amendments, which are not allowed under Senate rules. Pretty crafty stuff.

All that’s needed now for Reid to pass the PATRIOT Act extension through the Senate without any modifications is a vote on cloture, requiring 60 votes, and, within 30 hours, a simple-majority vote on passage. Those bot happier to be in the bag, though Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY] and any of the other senators who had their amendments throw out by Reid may insist on using up all 30 hours of post-cloture time just to slow things down a bit. 

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