Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has been vexed by Democratic delaying tactics that he honed while his party was in the minority, five presidential aspirants with their own agendas and a new crop of conservative firebrands demanding their say.
WASHINGTON — The sleepy U.S. senators thought they were done voting. But about 1 a.m. Saturday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and presidential candidate, marched to the Senate floor to let it be known that no, he would not agree to extend the federal government’s bulk collection of phone-records program. Not even for one day.
With that, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentucky Republican who only a few hours before was ebullient with the passage of a major trade package, was reduced to ordering his colleagues back to Washington, D.C., next Sunday to try again to prevent the act from expiring June 1.
The unexpected legislative collapse in the floor and McConnell’s morose departure pointed up the quandary that has emerged since Republicans took control of the chamber.
They have had successes, such as passage of the hard-fought bill that could pave the way to the largest trade agreement in a generation and a bill to give Congress a voice in the Iran nuclear negotiations. And more senators are allowed to try to influence legislation through amendments, which McConnell’s Democratic predecessor as majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, prevented.
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But as senators raced for the airport Saturday after a six-week session that ended in disarray, they left behind a wreck of promises made by McConnell on how a renewed Senate would operate. McConnell has been vexed by Democratic delaying tactics he honed in the minority, five presidential aspirants with their own agendas and a new crop of conservative firebrands demanding their say.
He promised that his party would instill more discipline, avoiding the last-minute legislative cliffhangers that have long marked Congress and left government workers and the capital markets in a state of constant unease.
Instead, he allowed the Senate to depart with a key national-security program dangling on the precipice of extinction. Senators also failed again to find a long-term solution for fixing the nation’s crumbling roads.
McConnell promised that, unlike Reid, he would let bills enjoy a “strong and robust” amendment process, with senators from both parties given a voice on all legislation. Yet in some cases, as in a measure to give Congress a say in any global deal on Iran’s nuclear program, McConnell’s efforts were felled by his own party. And in the case of trade, Democrats felt that a promise of an amendment buffet was little more than a snack.
McConnell vowed that committee work would replace backroom deals on major legislation, although the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of phone records — which falls under the jurisdiction of two committees — was never the subject of a public hearing or a formal drafting of a bill.
With the NSA vote, McConnell made a series of errors: choosing to do the trade bill first instead of dealing with the deadline on the surveillance measure; failing to appreciate Paul’s zeal — and fundraising efforts — regarding the privacy issue; and underestimating the power of the rest of his presidential caucus.
Paul had been using his stand against any extension of the Patriot Act’s phone-records dragnet as a campaign tool all week. When he took to the Senate floor to speak for 10½ hours Wednesday, describing what he said were the evils of government surveillance, his campaign was simultaneously hawking fundraising souvenirs (“Get your Rand Paul filibuster start pack!”).
With another Republican presidential aspirant, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, visibly rolling his eyes, Paul and his allies took to the Senate floor about 1 a.m. Saturday to object to a series of brief extensions proposed for the Patriot Act: seven days, four days, two days, one day.
That bit of theatrics came in large part because McConnell’s vaunted restoration of the committee process had broken down.
McConnell had promised the Senate would largely cease its habit of jamming through legislation worked out between congressional leaders and go back to committees writing bills.
While the House — as of late the more dysfunctional legislative body in the U.S. — managed to do just that, in the Senate, neither the Judiciary nor the Intelligence committee had a public hearing on bulk data collection.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, chose to bypass his own members and team up with McConnell to offer a bill that would have extended the program for five years.
But both men realized their idea had so little support that they never even bothered to take it to the floor, instead opting for a two-month extension that failed. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, withdrew from the entire process, leaving Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to operate as if he were still the chairman, working with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to push the House measure.
“Although we have known these sunsets were coming for years, the Republican leadership in the Senate has done nothing this year on this urgent matter,” Leahy said.
The collapse was not all McConnell’s fault. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, noted that the majority leader had been trying for two months to get legislation on the Senate floor to extend the president’s trade-promotion authority, which would help President Obama complete a major trade accord with Pacific Rim nations.
But dithering by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, repeatedly pushed off trade action.
Once the trade bill reached the floor, Democrats used the same tactics Republicans had when they were in the minority to stop the Senate in its tracks. They proposed 150 amendments. By Thursday, they had whittled them down to 38. By Friday, the total was 20. In one full week of debate, seven amendments came to a vote. Two passed.