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Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com

Articles by Brian

The highlight of Mitch McConnell's event at AEI today was his encounter with Norm Ornstein, whom he described as a "good old-fashioned far-left guy" who has been "consistently wrong about everything." The audience predictably ate it up.

Watch below the fold.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Friday to update a warning he issued at the same venue one year ago about President Obama's supposedly anti-free speech administration.

But the subtext was actually quite different: McConnell effectively acknowledged to disappointed conservatives that recently revealed IRS malfeasance probably wasn't the consequence of any direct action taken by the White House.

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In a single procedural move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweaked bipartisan immigration reform legislation to reflect a new amendment to heavily police the border, and locked in a vote on the final bill for next week.

On the Senate floor, Reid introduced the modified bill, then did what's known as "filling the amendment tree" to round out the amendment process, and filed cloture. That sets up a vote to break a GOP filibuster next week, and a final passage vote shortly thereafter.

Last year, when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence met to complete legislation renewing soon-to-expire surveillance laws, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) recognized an opportunity -- a long-shot, but an opportunity nonetheless -- to advocate for new restrictions on government snooping.

Behind closed doors, well out of earshot of privacy advocates, most other senators, and his own constituents, Wyden sought to amend the bill. He wanted it to direct the Justice Department's inspector general to determine approximately how many Americans have had the contents of their communications gathered under section 702 of FISA that gave rise to PRISM, and to require government officials to obtain court orders before querying 702 collections with the names of American citizens -- in other words, to close a backdoor surveillance loophole.

Both amendments failed, over his pleas, and the committee cleared the broader bill by a wide vote margin.

But what happened next is what really irks civil libertarians and others who want the process of legislating intelligence matters to become more transparent. The chair and vice chair of the committee touted the outcome of the committee vote, while Wyden was prohibited by committee rules from publicly registering and explaining his opposition.

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This is a very big whoops. There will be plenty of recriminations for Republicans if they don't get their act together on the farm bill, and the only way to get their act together is if they acquiesce to reality and agree to move something that isn't completely toxic to Democrats.

But more broadly, it's tough to look at the farm bill fiasco and imagine the House passing an immigration reform bill that Dems don't carry.

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In the wake of recent NSA surveillance revelations, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wants her members to be on the same page when they talk to the public about the underlying law, and Democrats' role in crafting it. But whatever concerns remain, she wants them to emphasize that Congress under her leadership improved the status quo ante by restraining President Bush's far-reaching surveillance program and providing a legal basis for NSA collection programs, including ones disclosed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

In a memo sent to her members Tuesday and obtained by TPM, Pelosi stresses the improvements to national security law made since the Bush administration. "Striking the right balance has been a long-standing priority for Democrats," the memo says. "In fact, Democrats insisted upon the protections in current law related to the government's collection of information pursuant to the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."

In a side-by-side chart accompanying the talking points, Pelosi compares the justifications for and extent of President Bush's warrantless surveillance program; a temporary 2007 law called the Protect America Act, and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which made some of the PAA permanent, and serves as the current legal basis for some of the NSA's current operations.

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Depending on which elected official you asked this week or last, the revelation that the NSA regularly collects U.S. phone records, and can easily access some private content like emails and chat transcripts from Internet companies, was either no big deal, an enormous shock to the conscience, or an "I told you so" moment.

For most members who don't serve on one of the secretive intelligence committees and aren't among the four highest ranking officials in Congress, the scope if not the existence of the programs came as a surprise. Those members weren't prohibited from receiving official briefings about classified collections programs. But even if they took unusual interest in the issue, they had to seek out information, without easy access to the subject-area knowledge required to decipher what they'd learned, or the authority to share it with their staffs or other elected officials. The administration didn't volunteer information, and these members' generally don't have aides with top-secret security clearances, let alone expertise in signals intelligence.

But even though intelligence committee members, along with the top four bipartisan legislative leaders, had much more detailed knowledge about all intelligence matters than most members, they too have differing accounts about the scope of these programs, the accuracy of the stories written about them, and even their own ability to conduct oversight of the NSA and the country's most secret surveillance activities.

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The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has taken the unusual step of actively blocking a former committee aide from talking to TPM about congressional oversight of the intelligence community. At issue isn't classified sources and methods of intelligence gathering but general information about how the committee functions -- and how it should function. The committee's refusal to allow former general counsel Vicki Divoll to disclose unclassified information to a reporter was the first and only time it has sought to block her from making public comments, based on her experience as one of its most senior aides, since she left Capitol Hill in 2003.

The committee's decision comes amid fallout from leaks of classified National Security Agency documents by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden. In light of the Snowden revelations about the country's secret surveillance programs, TPM was reporting a story based on interviews with members of Congress and current and former aides about the successes and pitfalls of intelligence oversight on Capitol Hill. The goal was to answer some basic questions for readers: How does a classified process differ from public oversight? What challenges do the combination of government secrecy, classified briefings, and strict committee protocols present to legislators trying to control the nation's sprawling intelligence apparatus?

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Democrats want it to be crystal clear. They don't think Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is crucial to passing immigration reform. So they aren't negotiating with him over his non-starter amendment to make a pathway to citizenship contingent upon establishing an unrealistic border security regime.

An article published by National Journal quotes Cornyn claiming Democrats are "talking to me" about his amendment, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has called a "poison pill," and suggesting it's an indication that they lack 60 votes to pass the broader bill.

But in unreported remarks Wednesday morning at a "Bibles, Badges and Business" event in downtown Washington, D.C., Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the leading Democratic immigration reform bill negotiator, implicitly disputed Cornyn's claim -- and a source close to Schumer, who provided the quote, says Cornyn's characterization is false.

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