Why did NSA reform and the Keystone pipeline fail in the Senate?

Senators block two contentious bills as focus shifts to presidential action on immigration

It has been a week since the lame duck Congress reconvened in Washington, and two major bills have already seen defeat.

Senate Republicans flexed their muscles Tuesday, voting not to advance the USA Freedom Act, which would have scaled back the reach of surveillance by the National Security Agency and the FBI.

The act did not get the 60 votes needed to move forward, despite an extensive transformation in the House and winning endorsements from the White House, tech titans and privacy advocates. Congress will still have to decide what to do about mass phone record collection because the current authorization under the Patriot Act expires in June. 

The Keystone XL pipeline also failed to move forward Tuesday in the Senate. Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu fought hard for it, but in the end only 13 members of her party supported her, and the pipeline fell one vote short of cloture, 59 to 41.

The biggest battle, though, may be yet to come, with Republicans swearing to block executive action on immigration. Some have gone so far as to label unilateral action by Barack Obama illegal. Republicans promise to block any funding requests from the president if he uses his pen and phone on immigration issues.

Will the new Congress tackle NSA data collection reform?

Can the Keystone pipeline project be resurrected?

How was the USA Freedom Act blocked?

How will Congress fight presidential action on immigration reform?

We consulted an on-air panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Inside Story: Why is the Keystone pipeline such a polarizing issue?

Michael Lindenberger: It is almost a totem. It is a lot like the debate over the Alaska Wildlife Refuge nearly a decade ago. A lot of people in energy-producing states believe any impediment to getting oil to the market is a bad thing. The refineries may not expand from this, but this may make them more money. And the same thing is with the opponents. They think we should not be doubling down on fossil fuels if we are trying to figure out a way to fight climate change, be less reliant on fossil fuels. It has become a symbolic war over the future of the country’s energy production. The other thing is that the oil that comes out of Canada’s tar sands is really dirty. This is mostly strip-mined oil. It is a much more intensive process that worries environmentalists more. For opponents, anything they can do to prevent that mining from happening, they are for.

Mary Landrieu could not line up the votes. What does that say about the Democratic caucus?

There are plenty of people within the caucus who think this is a terrible idea. They want to invest in clean energy only. Then there are a lot in the middle, like President Obama, who support an all-of-the-above strategy. And then there are some like Mary who are gas and oil proponents. It does not surprise me it went down. There is a good deal of opposition in the caucus. I guess we will have to see if it did any good politically to force a vote only to come up short.

Where does this go in a Republican-controlled Senate?

[Upcoming Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell will bring this up very early in the new session. They won’t have 60 votes on the Republican side, but they will have it with some Democratic help. It is going to go to President Obama one way or the other. 

What did blocking this NSA reform bill mean in terms of the fight for the soul of the Republican Party between libertarians and hawks?

Nathan Leamer: It is a really good question as to what the next step is to the libertarian wing of the GOP going forward. Devin Nunes was promoted to [Intelligence Committee] chairman over less hawkish choices. [Rep. Bill] Flores beat [Rep. Mick] Mulvaney for the chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee. There really has been this response from national security hawks. They do not want another version of the Amash amendment [a 2013 House provision that would have defunded NSA telephone metadata collection], in which there is another surprise insurrection within the party … It is surprising that a party that had its very strong civil libertarians shift in that regard. Just a few civil libertarians voted yes, and many voted no. Tim Scott and others who may have been interested did not vote for it in the end.

How do national security conservatives regain the momentum within the Republican Party?

The situation in the Middle East really changed attitudes. You have an environment where people were using this fear of ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] to justify a system that has not been shown to be helpful. There are a number of reports showing that even if Section 215 [a part of the Patriot Act that expands the FBI’s authority to spy on Americans] had been in place, it would not have stopped the Boston attacks or anything else. But Republicans used ISIL … There may have been some Republicans who touted their libertarian credentials to win re-election and then felt comfortable jettisoning those views when it came down to a vote.

Who are some bellwether members of the new Congress to look at in terms of surveillance reform?

I would be really interested to see how Rep.[-elect] David Brat goes. I am also really curious to see about Sen.[-elect Cory] Gardner, who voted for the Amash amendment when he was in the House. I’d look at [Sen.-elect] Tom Cotton. He is being touted as a real national security hawk. He was the only freshman to speak up against the Amash amendment.

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