Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told senators not to pack their beach blankets and sunscreen just yet, warning they must finish action on three pressing bills before leaving for the Memorial Day recess.
“The Senate will finish its work on trade this week, and we will remain in session as long as it takes to do so,” McConnell said about the Trade Promotion Act bill. “I would advise against making any sort of travel arrangements until the path forward becomes clear.”
The trade bill one of the three he hopes to wrap up before the traditional first weekend of summer begins.
Even more urgent than the trade legislation is a bill to allow the National Security Agency to continue to monitor electronic records of suspected terrorists and a bill to keep federal dollars flowing to road construction projects across the country. Both face deadlines at the end of the month — when Congress will be away — and each is considered vitally important to the nation’s safety and security.
“The U.S. highway system is crucial to our nation’s economic well-being. It’s how we move goods and services. It’s central to American families who use our roads and bridges every day,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid while urging Republicans to approve a long-term funding bill for construction and maintenance of the highways, bridges, tunnels and mass transit.
“Congress must invest in working families and businesses by addressing nation’s transportation needs,” he said.
Despite the admonition from Reid, Republican leaders on both sides of the Capitol are all but set on approving a short 60-day funding bill that would allow construction projects to continue through July.
The House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on what will be the 33rd short-term extension of the highway funding bill. The stopgap measures are needed because Democrats and Republicans have not been able to reach an agreement on funding for a long-term bill, in large part because Republicans — and some Democrats — are reluctant to raise the federal gas tax, which has not gone up since 1993.
“Members of both parties are tired of kicking the can down the road and want to see a real long-term fix,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “The problem is that the bipartisan agreement tends to end there.”
The NSA will no longer be able sweep up huge amounts of phone data under a provision in the post-9-11 Patriot Act unless Congress reaches a deal to continue the controversial program.
In a twist on the typical lines of division between the parties, its Senate and House Republican leaders who have starkly different opinions about whether to rein it in. House Speaker John Boehner touted a bill the House overwhelmingly approved last Wednesday reforming the program. It ended the bulk collection and created a more targeted system for monitoring communications of suspected terrorists.
But in the Senate, top Republican leaders like McConnell and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, vehemently oppose limiting the NSA’s capabilities and just want to extend the current law for five years. They worry the phone companies, already under pressure from privacy activists, won’t hold phone records long enough for the program to work.
“I don’t want us to go dark,” McConnell said on ABC News on Sunday. “I’m afraid the House-passed bill will basically be the end of the program and we’ll not be able to have yet another tool that we need to combat this terrorist threat from overseas.”
Late Monday, Burr said he was working on compromise legislation that could gain support from the competing camps. He said he was working with his committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and other senators to ensure “that we have the capacity to do what the intelligence community needs to do” and “transition to the telecoms at a point where we feel comfortable.”
Burr said his plan did not center around requiring the phone companies to retain the records for a certain amount of time but rather requiring the phones companies to alert the government if they change their current retention policies.
Burr also said that if the House leaves for its recess before the Senate reaches a deal, the House could pass the bill when it returns from recess on June 1 and not cause a disruption in the surveillance program.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republicans, told CNN last week he expects votes on the House-passed bill and another McConnell proposal to extend the current law for 60 days more. But it’s unclear if either bill can get the 60 votes needed to pass. Top aides in each party said Monday they just are not sure where the votes are.
In response to the uncertainty, bipartisan senators have said if they reach a stalemate they might consider a very short extension to keep the authority from expiring but getting that through the House is likely to be tough — with a coalition of libertarian Republicans and progressive Democrats solidly opposed to the status quo.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, a 2016 presidential candidate, opposes extending the program and has vowed to filibuster it. But it’s not clear if his efforts would create a long delay in getting to votes on the bills.
The Senate is also trying to wrap up work on the a contentious bill creating fast-track congressional approval for international trade agreements. While most Democrats oppose the measure, arguing global trade deals destroy American jobs, the bill appears headed to passage because of the backing of a handful of pro-trade Democrats. Passage would be a victory for the Obama administration, which has lobbied hard for the bill.
However, quick approval this week could be a heavy lift because Democrats might try to block it if they don’t get enough votes on amendments, as McConnell has vowed to allow. The bill faces a tougher road in the House where there is strong opposition from a vast majority of Democrats and conservative Republicans and the measure does not have the votes to pass right now.
A top GOP leadership aide said McConnell could take procedural steps to limit the debate as early as Tuesday, which could set up a final vote by the end of the week.