When this week's big showdown over the Patriot Act was finally behind him, Jim Sensenbrenner could savor the kind of victory that doesn't come along too often in a polarized, party-line political world.
His two-year push to rein in the government's mass surveillance program cleared its final hurdle Tuesday with the support of two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. President Obama signed the legislation immediately.
"It's not that the President has caved to me or I have caved to the President," said Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican and prime mover behind the first major revisions to the Patriot Act since its passage in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We both realized there was a problem that had to be fixed. And we worked together to fix it," Sensenbrenner said in an interview Wednesday.
Along the way, the Menomonee Falls congressman helped build a coalition that crossed partisan and right-left lines, ranging from tea party conservatives to civil liberties Democrats.
Large bipartisan majorities on hot-button issues are rare these days. In the House, roughly 80 percent of lawmakers in both parties voted last month for the Sensenbrenner bill, known as the USA Freedom Act.
By the end, the bill's supporters included Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senate Republican Ted Cruz of Texas. Among Wisconsin lawmakers, they included Democrat Gwen Moore of Milwaukee and Republican Paul Ryan of Janesville.
Whatever one thinks of the law, it was an unusual legislative feat.
The Patriot Act reforms adopted this week have been attributed in part to a new generation of more libertarian Republicans elected to Congress years after the terrorist attacks.
But the law's chief sponsor – Sensenbrenner – has been in office since 1979. He's the second-longest serving Republican and fourth longest-serving member of the U.S. House.
Sensenbrenner was also the chief author of the original Patriot Act, which made him an effective advocate for changing it.
"Institutional memory is essential," he said.
Of any legislative victory he has played a major part in, Sensenbrenner called this one the "hardest to accomplish," because the others (including the 2001 Patriot Act) began with a built-in base of support in Congress and the public.
This one started "with nothing," he said.
After the revelations two years ago by Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency's "bulk" surveillance program, Sensenbrenner argued publicly that it overstepped the language of the Patriot Act. The government was collecting en masse Americans' domestic call records – not the conversations, but the record of what numbers were being called, and the time, date and duration of calls.
The Wisconsin Republican told conservative talk show host Sean Hannity last week that the NSA surveillance was "an intrusion to privacy of a scale no one imagined."
'The dominoes fell'
In 2013, Sensenbrenner began a long process of outreach and negotiation with telecommunication companies, the intelligence community, the White House, privacy and civil liberties groups, and colleagues in both parties and both chambers. He said he told telecom and digital companies that the program would damage them with customers, especially in Western Europe, where the surveillance was highly unpopular. Pressure from tech companies, he said, was a way to influence the White House on the issue.
Sensenbrenner worked closely with a small circle of House members and senators from both parties and both ends of the political spectrum to draft the bill. Boehner was persuaded to get behind it. Obama gave a speech in early 2014 promising new restrictions on data collection.
"The dominoes fell one by one," said Sensenbrenner.
In early May, a federal court ruling declaring the surveillance program illegal provided more momentum. After the House passed the measure overwhelmingly last month, the most powerful opponent was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, backed by a cadre of security-minded GOP senators.
Sensenbrenner said that while McConnell's opposition was no surprise, the "depth of his opposition" was. But the majority leader never had the votes to extend the Patriot Act unchanged and was outmaneuvered in his own chamber.
"He miscalculated where the public was and where his colleagues were," Sensenbrenner said.
All along, Sensenbrenner argued that his bill was the sweet spot between privacy and security, and upsetting that equilibrium would doom it. All along, the bill had critics on opposite sides of the debate, those who said it sacrificed security (like Senate Republican John McCain of Arizona) and those who said it sacrificed privacy (like Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, the only Senate Democrat to vote against it).
"You make the perfect the enemy of the good, then nothing happens, which is one of the reasons I think we have a lot of gridlock around here. I am absolutely convinced that what we passed was the best that was pass-able and sign-able," said Sensenbrenner, who acknowledged if he could impose a law "by decree" he would have included more privacy safeguards in the bill.
Gov. Scott Walker, a fellow Wisconsin Republican and likely presidential candidate, surprised Sensenbrenner with his public opposition to the legislation, suggesting it would cost the U.S. an important tool for tracking potential terrorists.
"I would respond to the governor and others who have been saying that, (that) the bulk collection (of domestic phone records) has been going on for nine years now and the threat has increased rather than decreased," Sensenbrenner said. "And if there hasn't been any evidence that has been submitted that the bulk collection stopped anything, then what's the beef?"
Sensenbrenner said one huge legislative lesson is the leverage gained from including "sunsets" – expiration dates. The provision used by the NSA as the basis for its mass surveillance program was one of three in the Patriot Act with sunset clauses, requiring renewal. Sensenbrenner's original Patriot Act was criticized as overreaching by civil liberties advocates. But the lawmaker also was responsible for including the sunsets, and that leverage made this week's changes to the Patriot Act possible.
"If we ever had the need demonstrated on how useful sunsets are, this is it," said Sensenbrenner.
Sensenbrenner said he thinks Americans have shifted and become more privacy conscious compared to the climate that was created more than a decade ago by the 2001 attacks.
"You have more libertarian Republicans ...And you've got more civil liberties-minded Democrats that are concerned about that," he said, citing how technology has made privacy concerns about personal communication more tangible for everyone, especially young people.
In his last re-election race, the 71-year-old Sensenbrenner distributed posters on college campuses touting his bill to revise the Patriot Act and restrict NSA surveillance.
The posters proclaimed, "The GOVERNMENT knows what you did LAST NIGHT!" and declared in smaller type: "The NSA has grabbed your phone calls, texts, Facebook posts and emails. Jim Sensenbrenner thinks that is an outrageous invasion of your privacy."
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