Bills

Senate took key votes this weekend on trade and surveillance but not before forces aligned

Friday, May 22, 2015: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C.

Friday, May 22, 2015: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C.  (AP)

“Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state.

Then nearly 14 billion years ago expansion started.Wait...
The Earth began to cool.
The autotrophs began to drool.
Neanderthals developed tools.
We built a wall (We built the pyramids).
Math, science, history. Unraveling the mystery.
That all started with the Big Bang!”

Theme from “The Big Bang Theory”, Barenaked Ladies

The Senate universe smoldered into a hot, dense state early this week. Senators anticipated a nine-day escape from Washington, coinciding with Memorial Day. It would be the only respite from legislative business for senators between Easter and July 4th.

But before the jailbreak, the Senate faced a staggering workload. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned senators that recess wouldn’t begin until they finished a framework to handle President Obama’s Asian trade compact.

A potential expiration of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying programs and reauthorization to use the Highway Trust Fund for roads and bridges also threatened the recess. Exactly how the Senate would resolve this staggering menu of issues was anyone’s guess.

There was chatter of “filibusters” by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. And there were questions about whether the Senate even had the votes to vault a procedural hurdle on the trade package.

Any number of obstacles threatened the week. In short, no one quite knew the cartography of the “congressional universe.” That’s because the Senate simply stewed in that “hot, dense state.” The legislative cosmos to dictate the week hadn’t formed. Only a prime movement would initiate matters. A “Big Bang,” as it were.

The end to that vacuum came Thursday morning.

McConnell set up a procedural vote for Thursday, requiring 60 yeas on the trade package. A failure to score 60 ayes could spell a brutal blow to President Obama’s trade measure.

The outcome of the vote was anything but certain. At one point, the vote looked to be doomed to failure, six yes’s shy of the all-important 60 vote threshold.

But Washington’s Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray saw an opportunity. McConnell met in the well of chamber with Democrats who favored the trade pact. Cantwell had long advocated a reauthorization of the government’s Export-Import Bank. The Ex-Im Bank’s charter expires at the end of June. Many conservatives view the institution as a boondoggle. But pro-business interests -- especially those involved in trade and in the Pacific Northwest -- think the bank is essential to guaranteeing loans to firms which do business overseas.

Cantwell extracted a promise from McConnell: A June vote to re-up the Ex-Im Bank. And once the Kentucky Republican agreed, Cantwell and several other pro-trade senators voted yes. Those yeas swelled the vote total to 62 yeas, well-above the 60 vote crossbar.

The Ex-Im deal between McConnell and Cantwell proved to be the Big Bang. Once the Senate was on a path to finish the trade deal, the cosmological structure of the Senate’s universe began to form and expand. A synthesis of political protons and electrons, elements and gravity.

But like our universe, the Senate’s universe would take a while to develop, sidetracking into other epochs. Since the Senate scored 62 yeas on the trade bill, its passage was now not in doubt. It was just a question of when. That’s to say nothing of dealing with the NSA programs and the highway measure.

When the Senate “invokes cloture” as it did on the successful procedural vote Thursday morning, senators retain the right of an additional 30 hours of debate. That meant, sans an agreement, the Senate could sit in an Ice Age until 4:56 p.m. eastern time Friday.

Meantime, senators scrambled to forge a deal on amendments to the trade legislation. At the same time, lawmakers fretted as to whether the Senate could even advance a bill to reauthorize the NSA’s programs, forcing the government to shutter them.

An important phenomenon impacting the Senate’s universe unfolded midday Thursday. In the Senate’s parallel universe, the House concluded its work for the Memorial Day break (punctuating its work period with a bill on outer space, ironically enough).

Members dashed for the exits. But there was a problem. Earlier this month, the House approved its own version, but modified reauthorization of domestic surveillance operations, called the USA FREEDOM Act. The bill altered some of the existing spy activities commissioned under the 2001 PATRIOT Act. The new bill banned the NSA from collecting bulk metadata regarding who dials who and when. The House OK’d the legislation on a staggering 338-88 vote.

But McConnell pushed a bill that only renewed the spy programs for two months. A bipartisan group of senators -- energized by Rand Paul and his marathon speech condemning the government’s intrusions -- threatened a supermajority for either the House bill or McConnell’s effort.

House Speaker John Boehner stuck to his guns on the measure adopted by his members.

“The House has acted. It’s time for the Senate to act,” said the Ohio Republican.

But here’s the rub. The House abandoned Washington for the Memorial Day recess Thursday afternoon, even as the Senate hadn’t yet moved. Several senior House GOP sources reiterated to Fox News that the House would not break from the respite to pass a short-term extension or any other bill that wasn’t the NSA measure approved last week.

“The NSA programs will lapse if the Senate doesn’t take our bill,” declared a senior House GOP source Friday morning.

It was clear that some senators didn’t think too much of the House NSA plan, having trouble even articulating its title.

“I think the Freedom-whatever-you-call-the-thing is flawed,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I think this we’re reacting to (Edward) Snowden and not the threats.”

But the bill did have its advocates in the Senate, namely Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

“The House (bill) was the path forward,” he said.

But there were questions as to whether House members were feckless, trying to jam the Senate legislation, then skip town.

“No, no, no they weren’t,” replied Leahy when asked if the House was irresponsible. “They gave it to us (the Senate) in plenty of time. They weren’t irresponsible at all.”

On Thursday afternoon, the Democratic and Republican Senate leaders tried to get an agreement on amendments to the trade bill or even conduct a final vote before the 30 hours burned off. But it wasn’t to be.

The Senate waded through a set of existing amendments and other procedural votes. The trade galaxy of the Senate’s universe had all but formed except for final passage. But just after 8 p.m. Friday, the Senate found itself briefly in another parliamentary cul-de-sac, facing the potential of another 30 hours of debate before finishing the trade plan.

“This can go on as long or as short as senators prefer,” said McConnell. “I cannot tell you with specificity when the vote will occur. But it will come when no senator is seeking recognition.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, railed for about 15 minutes against the trade bill then relented. Finally McConnell called the vote. Senators approved the trade measure 62-37.

One down...

The trade galaxy of the universe finally came together. But then attention turned to another quadrant: the domestic surveillance programs.

McConnell teed-up two procedural votes just to get onto either the House’s NSA bill or his preference, the two-month extension. Technically, neither vote could ripen until Saturday unless McConnell could secure an agreement. But McConnell wasn’t able to expedite the process. So, the Senate completed its “matinee” on trade. It would return at the witching hour for the “late, late show” on the NSA.

The Senate went out of session and came back at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. By rule, the Senate couldn’t conduct either of those procedural votes until one hour after the Senate met on Saturday -- at about 1 a.m. But McConnell did manage to carve out an agreement to start the votes just after the midnight Senate convocation.

Only four spectators sat in the Senate’s public viewing gallery at that hour. Two wore red “Stand with Rand” T-shirts. On the Senate floor, GOP Reps. Justin Amash, Mich., and Thomas Massie, Ky., two of the most vociferous opponents of the NSA programs, leaned on a rail in the back of the chamber.

It was doubtful either vote would garner 60 votes. And ultimately neither did. In a memo earlier this week, the Justice Department told lawmakers it would have to ramp down those intelligence programs ahead of time if it didn’t think Congress would renew them. The agency also said it would take a while to restart those efforts, even if Congress OK’d an extension, ex post facto.

A senior House Republican aide tells Fox News that the GOP leadership didn’t view the agency’s missive as an idle threat - or the intelligence community equivalent of fencing off the World War II Memorial on the National Mall during the 2013 government shutdown.

So McConnell had one final gambit. Or shall we say, four final gambits, to try to form the Senate universe on NSA programs.

Just after 1 a.m. eastern time, McConnell quickly ripped through a series of requests to get all senators to agree unanimously to extend the existing programs until various dates in early June. Paul objected to two of the requests by his home state colleague. Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden, Ore., and Martin Heinrich, N.M., rebuffed the other efforts.

And with that, the universe was fully mapped. But not the way McConnell wanted it.

“My colleagues, here is where we are: We are unable to clear any short-term extensions,” he said.

McConnell then announced the Senate would next meet for legislative business in a rare Sunday session on May 31, just hours before the programs are scheduled to go dark.

“We have a week to discuss it and we have one day to do it,” he continued. “We better get ready next Sunday afternoon to keep this country from being in danger from the total expiration of the program.”

A new universe…

“We relied on the Constitution for about 200 years. I think we could rely on the Constitution again,” Paul said when asked if a lapse in the programs posed danger to Americans as he exited the Capitol.

“Hopefully he’ll change his mind,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., of Paul. “I think the vote tonight shows that (the House bill) couldn’t happen in the Senate.”

And just as one Senate universe formed on the NSA bill, its stars went supernova.

The Senate is back next Sunday, stymied on the NSA programs. For now, everything is back to just that hot, dense state until legislative particles are again flung about the Capitol to form the next legislative universe.

All propelled by a big bang.