Congress faces two major deadlines, with a third lurking around the corner and a fourth, artificial one put into place.
And at the center of the action are Wisconsin delegation members.
Congress has until month's end to reauthorize -- or let expire -- some of the most controversial domestic surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which was enacted in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It has the same scant four legislative days to extend federal highway and transit funding. It has until June 30, which seems like months away in the current congressional time warp, to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank or force the more than 80-year-old credit finance institution to shutter
But before that, the Senate now apparently only has until the Memorial Day recess to decide whether to give President Barack Obama so-called "fast-track" authority on trade deals.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned colleagues on Monday that they would have to deal with all but the Ex-Im Bank this week or give up their pending recess, which is scheduled to begin Friday.
"Senators should know that I'm quite serious," McConnell said. "I would advise against making any sort of travel arrangements until the path forward becomes clear." Later he clarified that he meant all three priorities had to be cleared before he would let the Senate adjourn.
Further complicating matters is that House and Senate GOP leaders aren't on the same legislative page. Last week the House overwhelmingly approved Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's tweaks to the domestic surveillance programs that would curtail the National Security Agency's authority to collect telephone "metadata" from Americans' phone records in bulk. But the Senate refused to take up the measure authored by the Menomonee Falls Republican.
McConnell doesn't just want the Senate to consider the USA Freedom Act; he wants lawmakers to approve an outright extension of the surveillance programs, including roving wiretaps, the so-called "lone-wolf" provision and the phone records' dragnet. See more below on U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson's tentative support for the Sensenbrenner measure.
On the trade front, McConnell wants Congress to approve Trade Promotion Authority, or "fast-track" authority, which allows a president to present a trade deal to Congress for simple up-or-down approval with no opportunity for amendment. A majority of Democrats--with Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, being a notable exception-- oppose doing so. And bipartisan filibuster threats against the legislation abound in the Senate, which last week blocked the bill from coming to the floor.
However, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, TPA's House champion, swears he can find the House votes to pass it if the Senate can.
"We will have the votes," Ryan said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "We're doing very well. We're gaining a lot of steam and momentum."
One proposed amendment to TPA in the Senate would reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank, which would further jeopardize the underlying bill's chances, especially in the House. There are major divisions within the GOP over allowing the bank to continue operating. Congress used to routinely extend the bank's authority but now many conservative Republicans rail against the government credit agency, saying it picks corporate winners and losers.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, is the bank's most powerful opponent. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Weston, a subcommittee chairman, last year was noncommittal about the bank's fate but now backs his chairman and opposes reauthorizing it, according to his office. The only other Wisconsinite on the panel, Milwaukee's Gwen Moore, has sponsored legislation to keep the bank open.
"The moment we let it expire, is the moment we lose thousands of American jobs," said Moore spokesman Eric Harris. "That's a big problem. Democrats are aligned on this."
Less controversial, but nonetheless somewhat problematic for McConnell, is the matter of highway funding. McConnell has proposed only extending contracting authority for another two months. Democrats howl in opposition, but are likely to ultimately go along with it. The House is expected to easily pass its own version of a two-month extension this week.