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Senate jockeys on trade, NSA reforms

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With the House already gone for a ten day Memorial Day break, Senators were struggling on Thursday night to find a way to rapidly deal with major legislation on trade, terrorism surveillance and highway funding, as the dispute threatened to keep lawmakers at work into the holiday weekend.

“There’s a path forward, if people want to take it, that could complete all of this work at a reasonable time,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“Or, we can make it difficult,” McConnell said, making it clear he knows Senators of either party could delay action for a variety of reasons.

Trade deal nears approval

The first major item for Senators is a bill that would expedite future consideration by the Congress of a U.S. trade deal with a group of Asian-Pacific nations.

Backers of the plan won a key test vote by a 62-38 margin on Thursday, moving to shut off debate on a measure sought by President Obama – but backed mainly by Republicans.

“It’s an agenda that’s good for U.S. businesses, but most importantly, good for American workers,” the President said in a meeting with his Cabinet – though a number of Democrats sternly disagree.

“Instead of getting this bill done by Memorial Day, we should get it done right,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who has tried in vain to slow down the ‘fast track’ legislation.

NSA surveillance and Patriot Act

Facing a May 31 deadline for the expiration of several controversial provisions of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, there was no clear path forward as Senators left the Capitol on Thursday for what lawmakers might do on terrorism surveillance.

One option was to vote for a bill approved by the House, which would rein in the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency, a measure that the White House was publicly endorsing.

“We believe that the clearest path forward to making sure that the authorities that I talked about at the beginning that are so critical to our national security don’t expire is the passage of the USA Freedom Act,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

But that plan has drawn opposition from McConnell and other key GOP Senators; they have floated the idea of a simple short-term extension of the Patriot Act.

“We’re going to be here until we do something that takes us down the road,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who says he favors a short term extension of the status quo to give lawmakers more time to reach a deal.

But, the problem with that option is an obvious one – the House has already left Washington, and won’t return until after the Patriot Act provisions have expired.

“There are critical tools to the FBI that are going to sunset on June 1,” FBI Director James Comey said earlier this week, as he warned they would do more than restrain the work of the NSA.

“I am very concerned that the American people will be unprotected if this law expires,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch told CBS.

Highway funding bill also on tap

While there is a dispute over a short-term extension of the Patriot Act, that type of ‘kick-the-can-down-the-road’ plan seems likely to prevail on a major highway bill.

Senators in both parties were floating a variety of ideas this week on ways to funnel more money into road and bridge construction; the authority for that funding runs out at the end of the month.

The House has approved a two month extension. The Senate seems likely to go along with that, and try in June and July to develop some other kind of plan – though any effort to bring more money into the highway program seems likely to be attacked as a tax increase.

One note about the Senate’s schedule – this will be just the second Friday of 2015 where Senators have had roll call votes on a Friday.


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