The Senate’s frenzied efforts to finish work on controversial trade and national security legislation are being complicated by a Rand PaulRand PaulWe can put America first by preventing public health disasters Conservative activists want action from Trump McConnell: 'Big challenge' to pass ObamaCare repeal in Senate MORE filibuster launched Wednesday.
Sen. Paul’s (R-Ky.) filibuster hampers the GOP-led Senate’s efforts to pass the big-ticket items before the Memorial Day recess. The new twist in this week’s Senate deliberations is a huge test for Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellFive fights for Trump’s first year Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road AACR’s march on Washington MORE (R-Ky.), who is a Paul ally.
Paul’s move will require McConnell to get a series of unanimous-consent agreements if he is to stick to his timeline of passing fast-track and an extension of the Patriot Act this week. Any one senator can block such an agreement, and there are many who feel strongly about trade and the nation’s spying powers. Senate officials say there is a chance proceedings could extend well into the holiday weekend.
Aides say fast-track and a short-term extension of surveillance authority likely have the votes to pass the upper chamber. But the Senate might not have enough time to get the bills done over the next couple of days.
Furthermore, key provisions of the Patriot Act expire June 1, and lawmakers are not scheduled to return to Washington before then. The House, meanwhile, is expected to leave town Thursday.
House GOP leaders note they have passed an NSA reform bill, which is backed by most congressional Democrats and President Obama. McConnell and other Senate Republicans strongly oppose it.
Senate Democrats, who have been extremely divided over trade this month, have shifted strategies. Instead of focusing on fast-track, they are now talking much more about NSA reform — which has pitted Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) against McConnell.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who often serves as a bellwether of the Democratic caucus, said she planned to vote in favor of advancing fast-track on Thursday. Democrats who oppose the trade bill acknowledge it has the votes to pass eventually.
But senators will have to decide whether they want to spend the recess in the Capitol instead of barbecuing or attending parades in their home states.
On Wednesday, McConnell told reporters he planned to “grind” ahead. He told his colleagues that he would keep the Senate in session through the three-day weekend if that’s what it takes to get its work done.
“Mitch is being smart. With all these games going on back-and-forth, he’s telling people we’re going to be here as long as it takes. That’s going to put pressure on people to compromise,” a Republican senator said after a meeting of the Senate GOP steering committee.
In the last Congress, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), then Senate majority leader, often threatened to work though weekends. Many times, Reid would back off or deals would be struck in time for members to catch their planes back home.
But McConnell is now running the Senate, and he plays his cards very close to the chest.
A GOP leadership aide said that no matter what, the pending bills would be addressed before the Senate adjourns.
The Senate will vote on cloture to a legislative package that includes the substance of the trade language. Without cooperation from the entire Senate, a combined 60 hours of procedural time would have to elapse before a final vote on fast-track.
Paul’s filibuster, however, threw the endgame into confusion; he launched into an open-ended talkathon, relieved at times by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Colleagues at press time had little idea how long he would keep control over the floor.
“As long as his bladder holds,” ventured Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But that guess was undermined by the short breaks Paul took when like-minded colleagues took their turns filibustering.
In March 2013, Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to serve as CIA director lasted almost 13 hours.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) anti-
ObamaCare talkathon in September 2013 lasted 21 hours. Cruz is also running for the White House.
Wednesday’s filibuster raised doubt about when McConnell would be able to file a motion to end debate on either the House-passed USA Freedom Act — which reforms the NSA’s bulk collection of data — or a two-month extension of surveillance authority. If he’s delayed in filing the motion until Thursday, votes to end debate on motions to proceed to those measures won’t take place until Saturday or early Sunday.
Opponents could delay a final vote on surveillance authority until as late as Thursday of next week if they lodge every possible objection after the trade package passes.
Paul’s filibuster also raised the prospect that a vote to end debate on the trade package could be pushed back to 1 p.m. Thursday. That’s because Paul could keep the Senate from convening until noon.
Democrats said Paul’s monopolization of the floor prevented colleagues from proposing agreements for amending the trade package, raising concerns that Democrats, feeling shut out, might be provoked to vote against ending debate on the legislation Thursday.
“He’s definitely blocking amendments. His action throws the charge that we were blocking amendments out the window,” said a senior Democratic aide.
Both sides have lodged objections to various proposals for considering amendments.
Republican leaders accused Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) on Wednesday of holding up amendments because McConnell refused to grant her a vote on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank.
Democrats countered that Republicans are equally guilty of blocking amendments — they objected to Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) request Tuesday to vote on a package of changes.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Wyden said senators were still trying to find a way forward on allowing additional amendments to the trade legislation, including Cantwell’s Ex-Im measure.
“I think Sen. Cantwell ... is raising a very valid, you know, point. Trade agreement without the tools to finance some of those trade opportunities just misses, I think, a real opportunity,” he said.
Asked if Democrats would be able to get a vote on Cantwell’s amendment, Wyden added, “We’re just working away.”
Jordain Carney contributed.