The Senate is supposed to be finishing up a six-week work period, but would lawmakers really leave for the Memorial Day recess without resolving the debate over National Security Agency surveillance?
For Sen. Rand Paul the answer is “yes,” because a lack of affirmative legislative action by the Senate by June 1 would mean the expiration of the authorities under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
“We could do something extraordinary,” the Kentucky Republican said Thursday. In the event of an outright lapse in the authorization, Paul said, “I see no reason why we couldn’t use the Constitution for awhile.”
Paul, whose filibuster of CIA Director John O. Brennan’s nomination over drone policy elevated his profile nationally, plans to do it again.
“With key so-called ‘PATRIOT Act’ provisions set to expire on May 31st, I’m leading the fight with a filibuster,” the presidential candidate said in a campaign fundraising email Friday. Supporters of the program “know if they keep this rogue spying program going, they’re going to have to railroad me in the process.”
An overwhelming majority of the House voted for a surveillance overhaul, including an end to the NSA’s current practice involving the bulk collection of phone records. That 338-88 vote in the House for the White House-backed USA Freedom Act puts Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a tough spot.
McConnell, who has favored a full extension of the program until near the end of the next presidential administration, floated a two-month stopgap late Thursday, but Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., tweeted shortly thereafter, “Two months is two months too long.”
The White House also upped the pressure, with spokesman Eric Schultz telling reporters Friday the Senate should not go home without clearing the House bill.
If senators fail to pass the House bill, “they will be weakening our nation’s security and stand in the way of reforms … that would enhance the American people’s trust and confidence in the agencies tasked with protecting them.”
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., sides with McConnell.
“Unfortunately, misinformation [and] demagoguery has led us to this moment. I’m hoping it’s not another terrorist attack that wakes the American public up to the fact that, boy, we really shouldn’t have hamstrung our ability,” Johnson said.
Before the Senate can even debate Patriot Act questions, leadership needs to figure out if there are enough hours in the week to pass Trade Promotion Authority, another sensitive issue that’s been a priority of both Senate Republicans and President Barack Obama.
There’s also a question of what action — if any — Congress will take to prevent a lapse in the authorization for surface transportation programs, which would also hit during the Memorial Day break.
Speaking at a news conference with agriculture leaders to promote the free-trade piece of the week’s agenda, Republican Conference Chairman John Thune said the delays in proceeding to the package of “fast-track” trade authorities and Trade Adjustment Assistance have made it possible a bill will not make it off the Senate floor before the holiday weekend hits.
“I had hoped to have it done before the Memorial Day break. I think our leaders had hoped to have it done, but that required a level of cooperation that we didn’t have,” the South Dakota Republican said.
And Democrats, particularly TPA critics, seem to have little interest in truncating the debate time on the trade bill, setting up another amendment process battle, with the first two amendments set for votes at the usual time on Monday evening.
“I’m willing to stay through the weekend to fight for what I think is important for our manufacturers and our workers — that’s fine with me,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
“We need to get our work done, and obviously, there are some things that are time sensitive. So I would support whatever necessary measures. Obviously, all of us have plans, but nothing is guaranteed,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said reacting to Thune. “I’d like to see us stay on trade, and once we’re into it, we can’t be motivated to bounce around to different issues. And of course, there is a certain allegation with some credibility that Sen. [Harry] Reid is having a difficult time in adjusting to not being the one who sets the schedule for the Senate.”
Reid, the minority leader, was still pushing McConnell to take up the version of the surveillance bill that got the 338 votes in the House.
“The Republican leader is isolated in his desire for a clean extension of illegal spying programs,” the Nevada Democrat said. “Republicans and Democrats have vowed to filibuster a clean extension if the Republican leader brings one to the floor. Even if he plows ahead in the face of bipartisan opposition it will take a week to secure a final vote, if that is even possible.”
Then again, senators always seem to find a way to cut a deal when recess approaches.
Matthew Fleming contributed to this report.