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Senate Allows 3 Provisions Within The Patriot Act To Expire


The program that has allowed the government to collect the phone records of millions of Americans is suspended as of this morning. It was among three provisions of the Patriot Act that expired at midnight after a dramatic day in the U.S. Senate. Senators returned for a rare Sunday session to try to head-off a lapse; but instead, they voted to consider a bill to reform the phone records program. It has already passed the House. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, getting it through the Senate could still take some time. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We say that a government program that collects phone records of millions of Americans was suspended as of Monday morning. In fact, the program actually expired. Congress is now negotiating a replacement for that provision.]

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When the Senate convened on Sunday, the doom and gloom was already gathering. No one seemed to harbor any hopes that the chamber could actually avert a lapse of the surveillance programs, and Minority Leader Harry Reid blamed the Republican leader for pushing the issue to the brink.


HARRY REID: We're 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.

CHANG: Still, on Sunday evening, an unrepentant Mitch McConnell made a last-ditch effort to at least rescue two of the less-controversial parts of the Patriot Act before midnight. One that lets investigators track lone-wolf terrorism suspects and another that helps the government monitor suspects who keep switching cell phones.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I ask unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to the immediate consideration of the bill...

CHANG: But fellow Kentucky Republican Rand Paul refused.


RAND PAUL: I believe that no section of the Patriot Act should be passed unless our targets are terrorists not Americans. I object.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Objection is heard.

CHANG: McConnell was visibly annoyed. He said the Senate shouldn't be disarming the U.S.


MCCONNELL: And we certainly should not be doing so based on a campaign of demagoguery and disinformation launched in the wake of the unlawful actions of Edward Snowden.

CHANG: No one in the chamber was unaware that this campaign of demagoguery and disinformation was being led by Rand Paul, the fellow Kentuckian McConnell has endorsed for president. The dig left Paul unfazed and undeterred.


PAUL: People here in town think I'm making a huge mistake. Some of them I think secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.

CHANG: Under a bill the House already passed, only phone companies would store the phone records and the government would need a court order to access the data. Paul vowed to delay that bill from passing the Senate as long as he could.


PAUL: My concern is, under the new program, that the records will still be sucked up into NSA computers but the computers will be at the phone company not in Utah. So the question is will it be a distinction without a difference?

CHANG: Now McConnell has never liked the House bill either. He wanted to extend the current program as is, but there weren't enough votes for that, and he wasn't about to let Paul kill the phone records program out right.


MCCONNELL: That's a totally unacceptable outcome, completely and totally unacceptable outcome. So we won't be doing that.

CHANG: And so the majority leader swallowed a bitter pill. He agreed to let the Senate move forward on the House's bill. The Senate overwhelmingly voted to advance it, and the chamber could probably speed things along towards final passage if it weren't for Paul, who's featured this crusade in this presidential campaign. Here's independent Senator Angus King of Maine.

ANGUS KING: To just arbitrarily force the Senate to spend two or three days to do something that could be done in two or three hours, I don't think serves much of a national purpose.

CHANG: So the provisions expired, the debate goes on and a resolution may yet be several days away. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 31, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
We say that a government program that collects phone records of millions of Americans was suspended as of Monday morning. In fact, the program actually expired. Congress is now negotiating a replacement for that provision.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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