All Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted was a quick extension of the Patriot Act and then a vacation.
Early Saturday morning, his plans for a two-month extension quickly dwindled to a weeklong extension, then a four-day extension, then a two-day extension, then a one-day extension. Each time, McConnell was rebuffed by a small coterie led by Sen. Rand Paul, his home-state colleague, a close ally and friend, not to mention his choice for the 2016 presidential nomination.
Call it the Bluegrass State brawl.
The all-out legislative fight capped off the end of a strange session for McConnell, when not only Democrats but his own Republican allies in the House questioned his strategy, one which left the majority leader with an abbreviated recess and no solution to the problem of the Patriot Act's pending expiration on June 1.
Just before 2 a.m. on Saturday, McConnell threw in the towel, for the time being. After attempting to use one of his best-loved tools, the clock and the threat of missed flights home, to cajole a divided Senate into extending the Patriot Act unchanged for at least a short time, McConnell will have to try again next week with an unusual Sunday afternoon session. That will give members just a few hours to pass some kind of extension.
When asked about the Kentucky civil war that played out on the floor early Saturday morning and whether Paul gave McConnell a head's up about his strategy, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said simply, "The communication on the floor was ongoing throughout the evening."
The battle lines had long been drawn. Paul and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden have said for the past week that they would filibuster any attempt to maintain the NSA's bulk data-collection rules as-is past the June 1 deadline. McConnell has long said he would only accept a full reauthorization, preferably for two months.
With the divisions clear and the deadline approaching, McConnell spent the last two weeks working instead on approving trade legislation, which lacks any kind of deadline. That bill was finally approved earlier Friday evening.
The strategy left House Speaker John Boehner and his staff baffled, sources close to the speaker told National Journal earlier this week. And House Republicans were furious that the Senate slow-walked legislation that passed the lower chamber 338-to-88 nearly two weeks ago.
"[McConnell] does everything for a reason," said Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who stood on the Senate floor with Paul and fellow conservative Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan into the wee hours of Saturday morning. "So I'm still trying to figure out the reason."
Senate Republican reformers agreed. "This was an entirely avoidable scenario," Sen. Mike Lee said after the vote. "I think we should have put it on the floor earlier. It was a big mistake not to."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, no stranger to running out the clock himself, had warned McConnell that his strategy was likely to fail, spokesman Adam Jentleson said Saturday.
"That's what happens when you try to jam everything in just a short period of time," Reid said, exiting the Capitol for the weeklong recess Saturday.
"Senator McConnell set several bills on a collision course without any real plan to resolve the inevitable pileup," Jentleson later said in a statement. "Senator McConnell badly misjudged the members of his own conference and failed to listen to advice from Senator Reid and others who saw this mess coming weeks ago and tried to warn him."
But the votes for either bill—to extend the Patriot Act or to agree to the House-passed USA Freedom Act, supported by Democrats and reform-minded conservatives in the Senate—weren't there last week, just as they weren't there on Saturday morning, Stewart argued.
Republicans on both sides of the issue are still clinging to the possibility that things will have changed come May 31.
"My hope is, in the meantime, in this following week, after everybody gets a good night's sleep and is thinking clearly, we can figure out a way forward on this," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said Saturday morning.
McConnell is hoping that with the deadline just hours away, senators will agree to a short-term extension, perhaps as short as a few days. "[I]t's another opportunity to pass a short-term extension while the Senate works to correct flaws in the House-passed bill," Stewart said.
But that will require unanimous agreement, unlikely given Paul's stringent opposition to the data-collection program. And even then, the House will not return to Washington until June 1, after the Patriot Act has already expired.
An expiration would be a victory for Paul and House conservatives, who opposed the USA Freedom Act because they do not believe it goes far enough. Paul bragged on Twitter early Saturday morning: "Patriot Act filibuster successful and ongoing. Bulk phone-record collection set to expire."
Paul has pushed for two amendments (a list he whittled down from six earlier Friday) to the House-passed USA Freedom Act, both of which were rejected by McConnell Saturday morning. Cornyn told reporters after the Senate finished its business for the week that he saw a path forward for the amendments, but only at a 60-vote threshold. (Paul had asked for a simple majority.) "Sen. Paul is asking for something that nobody will agree to, but they were willing to give him votes on the amendments," Cornyn said.
That likely won't be possible come May 31, given that the Senate won't technically be on a bill for Paul to amend. McConnell did, however, file a motion to reconsider the USA Freedom Act, leaving the door however slightly ajar for another vote on the bill that garnered 57 votes on Saturday morning, just three shy of passage.
But given McConnell's opposition, and fierce whipping against the bill on the floor through Saturday morning, an expiration of the Patriot Act looks unavoidable. Whatever plan McConnell had at the start of this saga, it wasn't supposed to end this way.
Brendan Sasso and Dustin Volz contributed to this article
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.