WASHINGTON — With President Barack Obama’s high-profile agenda at risk, the White House cajoled the Senate in public and private late Friday to pass major trade legislation and prevent a lapse in the anti-terrorism Patriot Act before lawmakers rushed off for a weeklong vacation.
“We can do all this today unless some want to delay it,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican leader, suggesting it might be Democrats who would.
In typical Senate fashion, hours drifted by with little or no evidence of progress on the pre-holiday agenda, which also included measures to permit a continued flow of federal highway construction funds. By dinner time, the legislative gears had creaked into motion as the Senate turned aside a proposed change to the trade bill that had drawn a veto threat from the administration.
Often, the marking of time has been a prelude to a mad rush to complete legislation in time for lawmakers to catch late-night flights back home.
Prodding from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, White House spokesman Josh Earnest urged the Senate to agree to a House-passed bill to renew anti-terrorism programs due to expire on June 1. The bill would eliminate the National Security Agency’s ability to collect mass telephone records of Americans. Instead, the material would remain with phone companies, with government searches of the information permissible by court order on a case-by-case basis.
Earnest said Senate refusal to consider the measure would put at risk “the ability of our national security professionals to keep us safe.”
But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky saw it differently, and was working to prevent its passage.
“The untried — and as of yet, nonexistent — bulk-collection system envisioned under that bill would be slower and more cumbersome than the one that currently helps keep us safe,” he said in remarks on the Senate floor. At worst, he added, “it might not work at all.”
If was unclear what the alternative might be. McConnell was backing a two-month extension of the current law as a backstop. But that appeared unlikely to command the 60 votes needed to advance. A possible outcome was a one- or two-week renewal of the current law, which would require Congress to return to the issue immediately after reconvening in June.
If McConnell and the White House were on opposite sides of one bill, they worked in harness on another — the business-backed legislation to allow the president to conclude global trade deals that Congress could approve or reject but not change.
The measure had the votes needed for Senate passage, but a fierce struggle is expected in the House when it debates the measure next month or in July.
One lingering challenge to the trade bill fell in a close, 51-48 vote. It came on a proposal by Sens. Rob Portman, R-0hio, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. to make allegations of currency manipulation subject to the same “dispute settlement procedures” as other obligations under any trade deal.
Cornyn said Obama was personally involved in efforts to defeat the proposal. The president has said it could cause the demise of the current round of talks with 11 other Pacific-area nations, and also could pose a threat to the monetary policy that is designed to help the U.S. economy run better.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned earlier in the week that a vote to attach the provision to the trade bill could cause Obama to veto the legislation.
Portman scoffed at threats of a veto. “I don’t think so,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor. “I think he (Obama) understands the importance” of his ability to conclude trade deals without congressional changes.
An alternative proposal, backed by the White House, merely stressed the importance of U.S. negotiators seeking ways to end the practice of currency manipulation, which can lower the price of foreign-made goods and place American-made products at a competitive disadvantage. It cleared on a vote of 70-29.
Like most trade bills, the one in the Senate crossed traditional party lines. Republicans and about a dozen Democrats supported the overall measure, which they argue would lead to more exports overseas by U.S. companies and more jobs at home.
Opponents include many labor unions and most Democrats in Congress, who say that international trade deals cost jobs at home as companies move production to nations with lower wages and more lenient environmental and labor standards.
To ease some concerns, the measure also included money for retraining U.S. workers who lose their jobs as a result of exports.
The highway bill was the least controversial of the three on the Senate’s pre-vacation agenda, but only because lawmakers agreed in advance on a two-month extension of the current law.
The House and Senate will need to return to the issue this summer. A partisan struggle is likely, because at current levels, the federal gasoline tax does not generate enough money to keep up with the demand for construction projects. Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, generally oppose raising the 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax, and there is no sign of agreement on any alternative to make sure there is money available to build new highways and bridges and repair aging ones.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.