Any way you slice it, Tea Party freshman Sen. Rand Paul scored a major victory Thursday, as Senate leaders announced he would get a vote on two of his amendments to the terrorism surveillance law known as the PATRIOT Act, before final passage of a four-year extension of three provisions of the law that are scheduled to expire at midnight.
"I'm going to get two amendment votes. I'm pleased," the Kentucky Republican said. "We come here to Washington expecting these grand debates...Instead what happens so often is the votes are counted and recounted...and when they know they can beat me..then they allow the vote to come to the floor."
The Paul amendment that caused the most angst, which would impose strict judicial oversight on access to gun ownership records, will get a vote, but the threshold for passage is high. Supporters need 60 votes, but they are not likely to find anywhere near that many.
Defeat is a near certainty. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, who said probably "no one owns as many guns as I do," announced his opposition to the Paul amendment saying it would risk scuttling terrorism investigations. As well, Chambliss read from a letter he said was authored by the National Rifle Association taking no position on the Rand Paul amendment.
It was this amendment that sparked a rare, stinging rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Wednesday night, who said the GOP senator was putting U.S. national security at risk.
"These should not be so sacred and sacrosanct that we don't ask the hard questions when our nation's security is at risk," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said, referring to gun records, saying law enforcement officials should have the ability to access the records to track the weapons of potential terrorists.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressed disappointment that he was shut out of the agreement. Leahy has an amendment (with Paul) that would impose more reporting requirements on the surveillance law. The second amendment by the former ophthalmologist, who had no experience in politics before coming to Washington from the Bluegrass State in January, would impose tighter restrictions on access to financial institution records.
"We need to be proud of the fact that it's none of your darn business what we're reading," Paul, a libertarian, preached to his colleagues once the agreement was announced. "You don't have to give up your liberty to catch terrorists...but what we did in our hysteria after 9/11 was give up our freedoms."
As for the expiring PATRIOT Act provisions, which the Intelligence Community has deemed critical to the fight against terrorists and to tracking intelligence leads found in the material seized in the raid on now-deceased terrorist leader Usama bin Laden's compound, they include:
*The "lone-wolf" provision which allows law enforcement agents, with a judge's approval, to surveil a non-U.S. citizen suspected of terrorist activity but who is not a member of a terrorist organization.
*Roving wiretaps - used on suspected foreign agents who repeatedly switch cell phones and/or numbers. *The so-called "library records" provision which allows the government to obtain a court order to seize business records relevant to a national security investigation.