The Slatest

With Sanders Missing, Anti-Surveillance Amendment Fails by One Vote in the Senate

A 59–37 edge for the yeas is not a winning margin.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks remotely during the Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on May 12, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks remotely during the Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on Tuesday in Washington. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Senate on Thursday took up a key bill to reauthorize domestic surveillance programs while making changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, with several substantial amendments on the line. One of the amendments, introduced by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Republican Sen. Steve Daines, would have required authorities to obtain a warrant to access internet users’ search histories and browsing information. Uh, yes, pass that??

The amendment, however, met an extremely Senate grave: It “failed” with 59 yeas to 37 nays, one short of the 60-vote threshold it needed to overcome the streamlined vestigial filibuster. The splits didn’t fall neatly along partisan lines: 24 Republicans voted for it, while 10 Democrats voted against it. (Would you like to see the names of the Democrats who voted against it? Their names are: Tom Carper, Bob Casey, Dianne Feinstein, Maggie Hassan, Doug Jones, Tim Kaine, Joe Manchin, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Warner, and Sheldon Whitehouse.)

Four senators, meanwhile, didn’t vote, when any one of them could theoretically have saved the amendment by showing up. Sen. Lamar Alexander is self-quarantining in Tennessee after a staffer tested positive for COVID-19. We don’t know where Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse was and do not care.

But where was Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, ranking member of the HELP Committee and assistant Democratic leader, or Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and also constantly comes in second place for the Democrats’ presidential nomination?

Murray, a spokeswoman told me after the vote, was “flying back to D.C. from Washington state today. She isn’t in quarantine; she’s just been working remotely.” An aide confirmed separately to Politico that Murray would have supported the Wyden–Daines amendment had she been there.

A Sanders spokesman has not responded to our request for comment about the senator’s whereabouts. The Vermonter was last seen on Tuesday participating remotely in a HELP Committee hearing from a room decorated with music-related campaign paraphernalia. He has not cast a vote since the Senate returned to session on May 4.

That an amendment that sounds incredibly politically popular in restraining creeping surveillance authorities just happened to fall one vote short of what it needed to pass invites some reasonable theorizing. Perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released the maximum number of Republicans to vote for this without letting it pass. Had Murray and Sanders been there to support it, McConnell could have twisted a couple of arms to keep it at 59.

Or it could have gotten enough votes to pass.

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