Senate Advances Bill To Give Obama 'Fast-Track' Trade Authority

May 21, 2015
Originally published on May 21, 2015 7:07 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If it's Thursday, it's a scramble to get out of town, at least in the U.S. Senate. But not so fast. Before they can leave town for recess, senators need to slog through a few things. This morning, they got a little closer to finishing a bill that would give President Obama more authority to negotiate trade. And after senators finish that, they still have to figure out what to do about a program allowing government access to millions of Americans' phone records. With us now to talk about the Senate's last-minute crush is NPR's Ailsa Chang. Hey there, Ailsa.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hey there.

CORNISH: So I understand there was some commotion on the floor this morning when the Senate was voting on whether to advance that trade bill. What was going on?

CHANG: Yeah. This was a dramatic vote, or at least as dramatic as the Senate floor can get. For several minutes, it looked like the vote was going to fail - that President Obama's trade agenda was going to go down in flames. And then you could see this huddle right on the floor between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a few other senators who hadn't yet voted. They were talking intensely, and then suddenly, the senators whipped around and each said, aye. They each suddenly voted yes on the bill.

CORNISH: So were you effectively watching a deal being made in exchange for their votes?

CHANG: Apparently, we were. There's a group of senators in both parties that support what's called the Export-Import Bank. The bank guarantees loans for companies that export U.S. goods, and it expires at the end of June. According to senators in that huddle this morning, McConnell promised them the Senate would vote next month on re-authorizing that bank. And that's what got all of them to vote yes on the trade bill this morning.

CORNISH: And that trade bill still - and the Senate still needs to finish that trade bill. But then it's got to get to the National Security Agency's surveillance of phone records and in a very short amount of time - right? - that they have left. What's going to happen to that program?

CHANG: Well, it's so hard to say right now. There are two bills moving in parallel at the moment. And remember, the program expires June 1. So if the Senate can't get this done before recess, the program will lapse. One of the bills would simply extend the current program for two months, meaning the government can continue collecting and storing people's phone records. The other bill is a bill the House already passed. It's called the USA Freedom Act. And under that bill, the government would no longer collect phone records. If it wanted to access that data, it would need a court order to get the records from phone companies. And for many Democrats, the USA Freedom Act is just a good middle ground. Here's Dianne Feinstein of California.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It may not be the sun, the moon and the stars, and I have some concerns about it, but the House has passed it, and the president wants it. So it gets the job done right now.

CORNISH: But also, there are 60 senators who will go for that House bill?

CHANG: Well, actually, it doesn't seem like it yet. So, McConnell and other Republicans are hoping to get their way instead - that is pass a straight two-month extension of the program. The problem with that is House members have been saying there's no way that would ever pass in the House. Speaker John Boehner keeps sticking to the message, the House has done its job - we already passed our bill. But Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina just called all of that posturing.

SENATOR RICHARD BURR: The biggest mistake you can make is take somebody at face value up here. If the best we can work out this weekend is an extension, a short-term extension, I think the House would go along with that.

CORNISH: And yet, I was only joking about people scrambling to get out of town, right? I mean, the House has already left for recess.

CHANG: You got it. That's absolutely right. So if the only thing the Senate can pass is a two-month extension, you may actually see a temporary lapse of the surveillance program.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, thanks.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.