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Debate Over Patriot Act Creates Unlikely Allies in 2016 Field

It’s likely to be one of the few things Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz will agree on this presidential campaign.
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It’s likely to be one of the few things Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz will agree on this presidential campaign.

With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire on June 1, the Democratic frontrunner and GOP firebrand both support legislation that would end the government’s bulk collection of phone records. The debate over if and how Congress should reauthorize controversial sections of the Patriot Act has caused one of the first major policy rifts among current and potential GOP presidential candidates and, in the case of Clinton and Cruz, produced some strange bedfellows.

Republicans Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Chris Christie favor renewing the Patriot Act as it currently exists, arguing no tool should be taken off the table when it comes to stopping potential terrorist threats.

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“You can't enjoy your civil liberties if you're in a coffin,” Christie said while defending the Patriot Act during a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on Monday.

Clinton and Cruz favor a bipartisan NSA reform bill known as the USA Freedom Act, which supporters say preserves the government’s ability to monitor threats while better protecting Americans privacy.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul has staked out the unique position of being the only candidate who opposes both bills. He has vowed to do “everything possible” to block the Patriot Act and also opposes the Freedom Act, saying it could grow government power.

The debate over the NSA, privacy and security will play an important role in the 2016 primaries as Paul champions civil liberties while his fiercest rivals argue that the government’s spying powers should not be limited as threats continue abroad.

Polling shows a shifting trend as a growing number of Americans are more concerned with the government’s ability to monitor terror threats than privacy rights. Shortly after Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s mass surveillance practices in 2013, 56 percent of Americans were worried that the government would go too far when monitoring potential threats, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. Coinciding with the rise of ISIS, that number had fallen to 47 percent by January 2015, with 46 percent of Americans saying they worry the government will not go far enough to monitor potential attacks.

The rest of the 2016 field has yet to take a formal position on the Patriot Act’s renewal. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has commended President Obama for continuing the mass surveillance practices started under his brother, President George W. Bush. Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum has also indicated support for the reauthorization, having voted in favor of it while in the Senate.

Former Republican governors Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry have been critical of giving the National Security Agency such broad surveillance power. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has not taken a position.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced his own bill in 2013 that would limit the government’s ability to search some records without reasonable suspicion, but has indicated support for the Freedom Act.

Last week, the House passed the Freedom Act but its future remains uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., favors a clean extension of the Patriot Act, setting up what will likely be a last minute scramble for a compromise before Congress leaves town for a break at the end of the week.

“We will do everything possible — including filibustering the Patriot Act to stop them,” Paul said during a campaign stop in Philadelphia on Monday. “They have the votes inside the Beltway. But we have the votes outside the Beltway, and we’ll have that fight.”