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WASHINGTON – Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul commandeered the Senate floor Wednesday to deliver an hours-long protest against renewal of the Patriot Act, calling the post-Sept. 11 law government intrusion on Americans' privacy.
Congress faces a June 1 deadline for the law's expiration, and Paul's speech underscored the deep divisions over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, which was revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.
"There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer," the Kentucky senator said at 1:18 p.m. EDT when he took to the Senate floor. "That time is now, and I will not let the Patriot Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged."
The House overwhelmingly passed a bill to end the bulk collection and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said the Senate will act on the issue before beginning a Memorial Day recess scheduled for week's end.
But McConnell, along with presidential hopefuls Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., favor extending the law and final congressional approval of the bill before the deadline is no certainty.
Paul plunged into a lengthy speech declaring the Patriot Act unconstitutional and opposing renewal of the program. With a hefty binder at his desk, he spelled out his objections, occasionally allowing Republican and Democratic senators to pose questions and getting support from a handful of House members seated at the back of the chamber.
"I don't think we're any safer looking at every American's records," Paul said.
Officials said it was possible the White House contender would hold sway until midnight or later, but his office offered no word on his plans. Paul's campaign sent out a fundraising appeal while his longstanding opposition to bulk collection, a pillar of his campaign, stirred social media.
The issue has divided Republicans and Democrats, cutting across party lines and pitting civil libertarians concerned about privacy against more hawkish lawmakers fearful about losing tools to combat terrorism.
As Paul made his case, a Justice Department memo circulated on Capitol Hill warning lawmakers that the NSA will have to begin winding down its bulk collection of Americans' phone records by the end of the week if Congress fails to reauthorize the Patriot Act.
"After May 22, 2015, the National Security Agency will need to begin taking steps to wind down the bulk telephone metadata program in anticipation of a possible sunset in order to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection or use of the metadata," the department said.
If Congress fails to act, several key provisions of the law would expire, including the bulk collection; a provision allowing so-called roving wiretaps, which the FBI uses for criminals who frequently switch cellphones; and a third that makes it easier to obtain a warrant to target a "lone wolf" terror suspect who has no provable links to a terrorist organization.
Last week, the House backed the USA Freedom Act, which would replace bulk collection with a system to search the data held by telephone companies on a case-by-case basis. The vote was 338-88, and House Republican and Democratic leaders have insisted the Senate act on their bill.
But McConnell and several other top Republicans prefer to simply reauthorize the post-Sept. 11 law. McConnell has agreed to allow a vote on the House bill, but has indicated there may not be enough votes to pass it in the Senate.
The Justice Department also said that if Congress allows the law to expire and then passes legislation to reauthorize it when lawmakers return to Washington the week of June 1, it would "be effective in making the authorities operative again, but may expose the government to some litigation risk in the event of legal challenge."
The White House backs the House bill and has pressed for the Senate to approve the legislation and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The House bill is the result of outrage among Republicans and Democrats after Snowden's revelations about the NSA program.
Although Paul called his action a filibuster, it technically fell short of Senate rules since the bill the Senate was considering was trade, not the Patriot Act.
Fellow Republicans were not overly concerned by Paul's move.
"I think many of us anticipated that he would probably at some point use the floor on Patriot Act, ... so I guess if he's going to, doing it now as opposed to doing it on the weekend is maybe preferable," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
Asked whether Paul's speech met the definition of a filibuster, Thune said: "It's going to be talking for an extended period of time. Around here I suppose that's a filibuster."
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.