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Crunch Time for US Senate on Trade, Surveillance

  • Michael Bowman

FILE - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., accompanied by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas., meet with reporters on Capitol Hill.

FILE - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., accompanied by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., left, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas., meet with reporters on Capitol Hill.

A U.S. Senate accustomed to plodding through legislation has a few days to act on three major bills or cancel at least part of next week’s scheduled Memorial Day recess.

With legislation pending on a mammoth trade pact, the scope of domestic anti-terror efforts and national highway funding, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday urged senators to “keep the ball moving.”

Monday, McConnell advised his colleagues against making travel plans to depart Washington. “The Senate will finish its work on trade this week, and we will remain in session as long as it takes to do so,” he said.

TPA

At least 8 amendments remain to be voted on before debate can conclude on Trade Promotion Authority, which would facilitate congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership of 12 Pacific Rim nations – the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s trade agenda.

McConnell has pledged an open amendment process for TPA, meaning that there is almost no limit to the number of measures senators could propose ahead of a three-fifths vote to end debate.

Although there is no legislative time limit for approving TPA, its supporters fear prolonged deliberations will imperil the bill by giving labor unions, environmental groups, and other opponents additional time to lobby wavering lawmakers.

NSA

At the same time, the Senate faces an end-of-month deadline to reauthorize or reform the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone records, a program used to search for possible terrorist plots.

Recently ruled illegal by a federal appeals court, the initiative's legislative path forward is especially challenging. The Senate’s Republican leadership opposes a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would keep phone records in the hands of telecommunication companies unless the government obtains a court order to review them. No bill can go to the president’s desk unless both houses pass identical versions of the legislation.

Additionally, Republican Senator and presidential contender Rand Paul is threatening to delay floor proceedings by speaking as long as he is physically capable of doing so, a tactic known as a talking filibuster.

“I will do whatever it takes to stop it,” said Paul of an expected push to renew the Patriot Act, a law authorizing aggressive anti-terrorism efforts enacted after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Speaking on the cable news outlet CNN, Paul added, “Nobody can predict how long you can talk, but I plan on doing everything humanly possible.”

Meanwhile, the Senate's top Democrat is pressuring McConnell to allow a vote on the House-passed bill.

"If we squander this opportunity to deliver sound reforms to this illegal program, we are handling our duties irresponsibly," said Senator Harry Reid.

Meanwhile, unable to agree on a six-year national highway plan, both houses of Congress are expected to vote on a two-month extension of funding that expires June 1.

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