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Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are trying to solve a legislative crisis in the GOP-controlled Congress. (Photo: AP)

A Tangled Surveillance, Trade-Pact Mess on Capitol Hill

Sen. Rand Paul talks a bit, but fight to kill off Patriot Act extension remains and serious battle continues over Fast Track authority for trade deals

Jon Queally

Talking for more than ten hours on the Senate floor from Wednesday afternoon to nearly midnight, libertarian Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) expressed his opposition to a two-month extension of the controversial Patriot Act but ultimately failed to fulfill his vow to do "everything possible" to kill legislation being pushed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell which—with time remaining on the legislative clock—still has the opportunity to pass.

As the Guardian reports:

Paul spent a total of 10 hours and 30 minutes on Wednesday calling for an end to the National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance tactics, eating up one of just three legislative days remaining before lawmakers go on recess till 1 June – the same day that key provisions of the Patriot Act are due to expire.

But by stepping aside just before the clock struck midnight, Paul, at least for now, did not meaningfully affect the Senate schedule or block the Patriot Act from moving forward.

The Senate thus looked poised to return to business as usual on Thursday, with a packed two-day schedule that included advancing trade legislation, a highway funding bill and resolving the Patriot Act impasse.

As the Associated Press and others noted, Sen. Paul's delaying tactics are called a "talking filibuster" not an official one, because the bill before the Senate dealt with trade authority and was not the topic of his speech, which covered surveillance and the various proposals on that subject. "Still," reports AP, "by never sitting or yielding the floor, Paul kept senators from talking on other topics."

Democrats who spoke with The Hill 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."

With these various and highly-contentious issues still in front of the Senate—and with the House of Representatives hoping to adjourn for its Memorial Day break on Thursday—the likelihood of passing these measures is not nearly assured.

From Politico:

Ahead of a critical vote Thursday to advance President Barack Obama’s trade agenda, pro-trade Democratic senators like Tom Carper are eager to finish a debate that’s exposed them to attacks from their party’s liberal wing — while progressives like Sherrod Brown suggest the trade supporters are choosing a politically expedient solution to avoid an extended debate.

On the GOP side, two senior House Republicans privately sought to alleviate concerns from Senate Republicans over a bill their chamber overwhelmingly passed to overhaul the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. The response from top Republicans like Richard Burr and John Cornyn: The House bill doesn’t stand a chance in the Senate.

“The Senate doesn’t take directions from the House,” said Burr, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “We’ll come up with something before we leave here. It won’t be what the House wants.”

It all amounts to a last-ditch scramble during the most rigorous work period of the young GOP Congress. With the outcome uncertain, palace intrigue is running high, and relations across and within party lines are frayed.

And according to The Hill:

Shortly after Paul's speech ended, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) moved to adjourn, meaning the Senate won't be able to take a procedural vote on either a surveillance reform bill or a "clean" extension of the Patriot Act until at least Saturday. 
Under Senate rules, if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moves to end debate on either bills Thursday, senators must wait until at least Saturday to take a procedural vote. 
Then, if cloture is invoked, the Senate will have up to 30 additional hours of debate, putting a final vote on at least Sunday or Monday.  
McConnell could try to get unanimous consent requests from all senators to try to finish up work on the trade and surveillance legislation, though it would only take one senator to block his effort.

Progressives have made resoundingly clear their opposition to both an extension of the Patriot Act and the bill pushing for Trade Promotion Authority, or Fast Track. Though they hold no quarter for the Sen. Paul's broader political positions, his marathon speech has been helpful in making Fast Track approval or a Patriot Act extension that much harder, at least this session. And because key portions of the Patriot Act will expire on June 1, if a full extension of the law is not passed and the Senate cannot find enough votes to approve the USA Freedom Act offered by the House, those programs—including the bulk collection of American telephone data—will automatically come to an end next week.

As Common Dreams reported on Wednesday, a coalition of privacy and civil liberties groups has organized a series of rallies nationwide calling on senators to simply do nothing on the current surveillance bills—thereby letting the most noxious provisions "sunset" as scheduled. In a call to action, they wrote:

The vote on renewing the Patriot Act is this Friday, right before the clock runs out to do so. On Thursday at 7pm (local time) as the sun sets, people are gathering all across the country to demand the Patriot Act expire. These 50 emergency vigils are the most important thing we can do right now to pull off any senator thinking that maybe it's ok to renew the Patriot Act. Find one near you by clicking on [this map], or contact us to add your event! End the Patriot Act this week, spread the word!

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