The White House surveillance bill squeeze stepped up to another level over the weekend. So the scene is set for an ol' fashioned cloture vote rumble this afternoon at 4:30.
To refresh your memory: the administration's far-reaching surveillance bill, which was passed last August in a similar White House squeeze play, expires February 1st.
To take the time pressure off and ensure that surveillance would be unaffected by the lapse, Senate Majority Leader has repeatedly proposed a 30-day extension to the Protect America Act. Republicans in the Senate have repeatedly blocked any effort to have a vote on it. They've also blocked attempts to hold votes on almost all of the offered amendments, leading to the situation today.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) filed for cloture, forcing a vote which would end debate, preclude any votes on the amendments, and lead immediately to a vote on the underlying Senate bill -- the administration-supported Senate intelligence committee bill, which contains a provision granting retroactive immunity to the telecoms. The Republicans need 60 votes to make that happen.
Now things are at the point where even if the Senate did manage to pass some sort of bill before Thursday, the process of hashing out the differences with the House version (which doesn't contain retroactive immunity) would drag on past the deadline. Reid has said as much: "The president has to make a decision. He's either going to extend the law... or there will be no wiretapping."
And over the weekend, the White House issued a veto threat. The game was clear:
âThe president would veto a 30-day extension,â a senior administration official said. âTheyâre just kicking the can down the road. They need the heat of the current law lapsing to get this done.â
Bush even added a tweak of soft-on-terrorism in his weekly radio address to bring home the message:
"If this law expires, it will become harder to figure out what our enemies are doing to infiltrate our country, harder for us to uncover terrorist plots and harder to prevent attacks on the American people."
For the record, everyone agrees that surveillance initiated under the Protect America Act will be unaffected for another year. But surveillance on new targets would fall under the prior FISA law, the one superseded by the Protect America Act.
So.... what's going to happen this afternoon? The Senate will hold its much anticipated cloture vote, and we'll see if the Republicans will be able to lure over enough Dems over to get to 60. Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) will be present to cast their "No" votes. If the vote fails, it seems likely that Reid will try for a vote on that 30-day extension. (For it's part, the House is set to hold a vote on a 30-day extension today.)
As for what happens at that point, I'll be the first to confess that I have no idea. We'll keep you updated.