Updated 5:52 p.m
Tea party 1, establishment 0.
That was the score late Thursday afternoon following Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) announcement that after days of grueling debate over the renewal of three key Patriot Act provisions, Senate leaders had reached a deal on allowing votes on two amendments proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Under the agreement, announced less than nine hours before the law currently extending the Patriot Act provisions was to expire, the Senate would vote on two amendments proposed by Paul: one that would limit “suspicious activity” reporting requirements under the Act to requests from law enforcement agencies, and another – the one that had seen the greatest opposition from Reid – that would exempt certain gun records from being searched under the counterterrorism surveillance law.
The victory for Paul wasn’t so much that either of his amendments would pass — in fact, both fell well short of the 60-vote threshold necessary for approval, with the gun-rights amendment receiving the support of only 10 senators.
Rather, it was that after days of vowing to block the passage of the Patriot Act extension — even at the risk of missing Thursday’s deadline — Paul, a tea-party freshman who has served in the Senate for less than five months, was granted votes on his two amendments.
By contrast, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) -- the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a veteran of the Senate for more than three-and-a-half decades and one of the key players on the Patriot Act since its inception in 2001 -- was forced to withdraw an amendment he had co-sponsored with Paul that would have sunsetted the government’s use of national security letters and provided additional oversight.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) objected to the consideration of the Leahy-Paul amendment.
“It is my inclination to object further,” Leahy responded. “And I realize the difficult position that would put the Majority Leader in, and so I will not object. But I do feel this really ruins the chances to make the Patriot Act one that could have had far, far greater bipartisan support, and we have lost a wonderful chance.”
Speaking on the Senate floor after Leahy made his concession, Reid pointed to the move as proof that the Vermont Democrat was “being his usual team player,” adding that he “really is a legend” and “a friend of the United States Senate.”
The development, which comes as the Senate is facing pressure from the Obama administration to pass the four-year extension of the Patriot Act before Thursday’s deadline, is one of the first instances of the tea party showing its clout in the Senate.
Of course, views of the Patriot Act among tea party-aligned members vary, and not all are as vociferous as Paul in opposing the law. One example of that came Thursday afternoon, when Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) co-authored an op-ed in Politico arguing that when it comes to the tea party’s “commitment to constitutional fidelity ... Patriot passes with flying colors.”
And not every move that Paul has taken in the five months since he joined the Senate has proved to be effective. In February, he was the only senator to cast a “no” vote on a measure making it a federal crime to point a laser beam at an aircraft, and his 2012 budget proposal, which was on the floor Wednesday, received only seven votes out of 97 senators present.
Still, by wielding his leverage on the Patriot Act and securing votes on his amendments even as a longtime committee chairman was denied them, Paul eked out a small victory that could have implications for tea-party-backed senators in future legislative battles.
“This is an extremely important plateau that we’ve reached, it’s been very difficult for everyone,” Reid said as he announced the compromise. “It’s been most difficult for him, and for me.”
In light of Thursday’s developments, that difficulty doesn’t appear likely to ease up anytime soon.