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Morning Plum: In desperate bid to save bulk spying, Mitch McConnell badly miscalculates

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As I expected, it increasingly looks as if the left-right alliance that rose up to stop NSA bulk surveillance is going to win a partial — but still very significant — victory. This could come in a matter of days.

Late last night, key surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act expired, capping a string of events in the Senate that ended in Mitch McConnell’s failure to secure either a temporary extension of bulk surveillance or final passage of the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which would end that surveillance but still allow intelligence agencies to retain some powers.

The Senate did vote overwhelmingly to move forward with the U.S.A. Freedom Act, a compromise measure that would transfer retention of records to phone companies, where the government can only access them with a court order. It is backed by a bipartisan coalition and had passed the House by an overwhelming margin.

But Senator Rand Paul successfully used procedural tactics to slow the Freedom Act’s progress — he opposes it because it doesn’t allow all authorities to expire — which means it probably can’t pass until Tuesday at the earliest. Still, it now looks very likely that it will, indeed, pass, because the support just isn’t there in the Senate even to temporarily extend bulk surveillance, as McConnell wanted — a remarkable turn of events.

Presidential hopeful Rand Paul opining on the NSA on the night the Patriot Act was set to expire. (Video: Senator Rand Paul/YouTube)

McConnell’s angry rhetoric in the face of expiring surveillance programs was really something to behold. Last night Senator Paul blocked McConnell’s last-ditch effort to extend some surveillance powers in order to keep alive the debate about extending bulk surveillance. Whereupon this happened:

That prompted a fiery floor speech from McConnell, who accused Paul and other opponents of the NSA program of engaging in a “campaign of demagoguery and disinformation” prompted by the “illegal actions” of former NSA contractor Edward Snow­den.
“We shouldn’t be disarming unilaterally as our enemies grow more sophisticated and aggressive,” said McConnell, who has endorsed Paul for president and looked directly at Paul at times as he delivered his remarks.

That is just perfect: McConnell blasts opponents of bulk surveillance for “demagoguery,” and then in the very next breath claims that ending it constitutes “disarming unilaterally” in the face of our “enemies.” In reality, as the New York Times recently put it, even the NSA itself is not “howling” or “resisting” these changes, because they just don’t deal a major blow to its surveillance capabilities.

McConnell appears to have badly miscalculated. His whole strategy was premised on the idea that if he called the Senate into a special session last night, with expiration of bulk surveillance and other powers looming, somehow something would happen — Senators would cave and agree to a temporary extension. Not so much, as it turns out. The result: All that is left is the U.S.A. Freedom Act.

This illustrates just how much the politics of national security have shifted. It also shows that the oft-advertised left-right alliance of civil liberties progressives and libertarian conservatives — which rises up periodically against national security overreach, yet often falls short — does appear, in this case, to be riding that political shift to a likely victory.

To be sure, some civil libertarians worry that the U.S.A. Freedom Act will not go far enough, and even will enshrine some surveillance overreach into law. One can only imagine the creativity that intelligence professionals may exercise in order to get around the new emerging order. But this is unquestionably a step in the right direction.

* MAJORITY BACKS CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO GAY MARRIAGE: A new Quinnipiac poll finds a majority (56 percent) supports allowing gay couples to marry. But more to the point, it also finds that Americans would support it by 56-38 if the Supreme Court found “a Constitutional right to marry.”

Meanwhile, it also finds that Americans oppose allowing states to prohibit gay marriage by 53-40. All this suggests there may not be any serious backlash if the Court issues a sweeping pro-marriage equality opinion, something that may weigh on the Justices.

 * REPUBLICANS ALL ALONE ON GAY MARRIAGE: The new Quinnipiac poll also finds that, while majorities of Americans and independents support a Constitutional right to gay marriage and oppose states prohibiting it, Republicans differ: They oppose the former by 62-34 and support the latter by 56-36.

If the Court does rule for marriage equality, some presidential candidates — Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal — might see a percentage in keeping up the resistance.

* HOUSE DEMS FEEL HEAT ON TRADE: The Hill looks at the spot many House Democrats find themselves in on the looming vote on Fast Track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They are caught between, on one side, intense pressure from the White House and business community to vote for the measure, and on the other, lobbying from labor and progressive groups who oppose it.

The stakes here are enormous: If very few House Dems end up backing Fast Track in the end, that would mean it really could go down to defeat, if enough Tea Party Republicans hold out against granting Obama the authority he seeks. (That’s a very big if, however.)

* OBAMA ALLIES WITH MAJOR CORPORATIONS: The Wall Street Journal reports:

Obama, who frequently has tussled with corporate America, now is relying heavily on an array of large U.S. companies to help enact a major Pacific trade deal. From Hollywood studios to drug makers and manufacturers, such as Caterpillar Inc., some major American companies are lending key support in the complicated push to negotiate the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and to win votes in Congress.

One wonders whether this will be all that helpful in the quest to win over liberal Democrats.

* O’MALLEY RIPS HILLARY AS ‘BEHOLDEN TO WALL STREET’: Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has declared he’s running for president, vowing a new generation of leadership. On ABC, he drew a contrast with Clinton on Wall Street:

“I don’t know what Secretary Clinton’s approach to Wall Street might be. She will run her own campaign and I will run mine. I can tell you this. I am not beholden to Wall Street interests. There are not Wall Street CEOs banging down my door and trying to participate or help my campaign.

The question is whether Bernie Sanders — who has already criticized Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street — will leave any room for a second progressive challenger along these lines.

* BERNIE-MENTUM IN IOWA!!! A new Des Moines Register poll finds that Hillary Clinton holds a commanding lead among Iowa Democratic caucus goers, with 57 percent saying she’d be their first choice as president. But Bernie Sanders has surged passed Elizabeth Warren into second place, with 16 percent — up from five percent in January.

O’Malley is at two percent — he might have lots of work to do just to be competitive with Sanders, let alone with Clinton. (In fairness, it’s very early and O’Malley just declared.)

* HOW SANDERS CAN HELP CLINTON: Sanders has called for a very robust, unabashedly redistributive government role in fighting inequality. E.J. Dionne skewers the warnings about how this will “pull Clinton left” and explains how it can help her:

Consider what a victory it would be for those who are weary of responding defensively to the phrase “tax and spend” if the sack of proposals Sanders carries over his shoulder began to reframe the popular debate. Suddenly, the country would be asking of this or that idea: “Why not?”….Sanders will help Clinton by shifting the boundaries of a public conversation dominated by a crabbed and pessimistic attitude toward what government can do.

Also, as I’ve noted, Sanders’ presence could prompt a real debate over the deeper philosophical differences that remain among Dems over the true nature of our economic travails and how to address them.

* AND THE QUOTE OF THE DAY, NATIONAL-SECURITY-DEMAGOGUERY EDITION: With folks like Mitch McConnell angrily denouncing Rand Paul for blocking bulk surveillance, this from Senator Paul is fun:

“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,” Paul, who is running for president, said from the Senate floor.

Wait, what is it you’re really saying here, Senator?

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