Senators sing blues over impasse; GOP hopefuls stuck in DC

Senator Tom Udall
Senator Tom Udall

WASHINGTON (AP) – Two senators have a plane to catch to Cuba, others were hoping to impress Republican presidential primary voters and then there’s Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is slated to deliver a sunset piano performance of “Ol’ Man River” on the banks of the Mississippi.

The Senate’s slow-motion amble toward Memorial Day break threatened all that.

“It’s not the weather, it’s the Senate that’s the problem,” said Alexander, the Tennessee Republican and former governor, as he waited out the impasse in his office Friday. On a borrowed Senate piano, he tapped out “The Memphis Blues,” with a wink, eager to head home for the performance Saturday with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. He’s got seats on two separate plane flights home booked for Saturday.

“I,” he resolved, “will be there.”

Beneath the lofty rhetoric about constitutional rights and the U.S. role in international commerce lay more immediate priorities for senators: How to somehow resolve disputes over trade and government surveillance in time to leave town for campaigning, overseas trips and a musical performance.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., cooled his heels on Capitol Hill just hours before he was to lead a congressional delegation to Cuba. Also up in the air: Sen. John McCain’s plans to lead colleagues on a trip to Vietnam on the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations, and to Singapore. Sen. Ted Cruz’s father spoke for him at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma on Friday, while two other GOP presidential hopefuls, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, sent taped addresses to the event.

Nothing seems to move the Senate as urgently as a looming vacation and all of the campaigning, foreign trips and free time that implies. Yet a full day after the House voted to pass or extend the policies in question, the Senate was still lunching, talking and meandering around the Capitol – and talking some more.

At issue Friday were extending the expiring provisions in the Patriot Act that give the National Security Agency its surveillance power, extending transportation funding for two months and giving President Barack Obama authority to negotiate a sweeping trade agreement with Pacific nations.

Late Friday night, the Senate passed the trade measure but struggled to agree on how to move ahead on the surveillance legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., deployed a well-used trick: threatening to stay in session until the remaining issues are resolved, even if that means taking a bite out of the weekend.

“I want to remind everybody we’re going to finish this bill before we leave,” McConnell said Thursday evening from the Senate well, making eye contact with each of the colleagues gathered around him. “There’s a path forward if people want to take it, that could complete all of this work at a reasonable time … or we can make it difficult, but the end won’t change. And so I would just encourage at least some level of cooperation here.”

As the hours ticked away, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, meeting his wife, Marcelle, by the Senate subway trains, shrugged and said he hoped to visit the couple’s grandkids in Vermont this weekend. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, rolled his eyes and chuckled as he rode the subway back to his office, his only plans to return around 5 p.m. for procedural votes.

Across Constitution Avenue in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Alexander tickled the keys of an instrument he’s played since he was 4. He’s played the AutoZone Sunset Symphony Grand Finale twice before – in 1996, the year he ran for president, and in 2008.

“It’s just a great happy event, with people sitting on the bank having dinner, having a glass of wine and looking out over the river,” Alexander said. “I think I’m not the only one who’ll be ready to go home.”

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