Love him or hate him, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) knows a thing or two about operating his chamber. With this in mind, when McConnell unveiled his pre-Memorial Day plan last week, it was tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt.
At this point, however, no one's thinking that anymore. The Republican leader's plan failed and the policy consequences are likely to be significant.
It's worth appreciating what McConnell attempted to do. First, he'd invest a big chunk of Senate time on "fast-track" authority, even though there were was no pending deadline. Second, McConnell would, towards the end of the week, bring the "USA Freedom Act," the House-approved compromise on NSA surveillance, to the floor. The Senate Majority Leader opposed the bill and expected to fail.
And third, with time running out and the policy poised to expire, members would have no choice but to approve a temporary extension of the status quo.
The first two-thirds of the plan went fairly well: the Senate passed trade-promotion authority and filibustered the USA Freedom Act, just as McConnell hoped. But his plans for a temporary extension failed, too -- McConnell asked for a two-month reprieve, then a week, then a few days, then one day. His ostensible ally, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) responded to every request with the same two words: "I object."
With existing policy set to expire on June 1, and with lawmakers nowhere near Capitol Hill, is it possible Congress will simply let elements of the Patriot Act expire altogether. The short answer is, yes. The less-short answer is, members haven't given up just yet. The New York Times reported this morning:
Senior lawmakers are scrambling this week in rare recess negotiations to agree on a face-saving change to legislation that would rein in the National Security Agency's dragnet of phone records, with time running out on some of the government's domestic surveillance authority.
Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said a series of phone calls and staff meetings over the weeklong Memorial Day break should be enough to reach agreement on changes to the USA Freedom Act. Three senators need to be won over for the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act, which has already been approved by the House and would change the post-Sept. 11 Patriot Act's provision that the N.S.A. has used to sweep up phone records in bulk.
That's not an outrageous goal. The House bill had 57 votes in the Senate, which is obviously a majority, but three short of breaking a filibuster.