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Toomey deadline complicates plans for lame duck Congress

WASHINGTON – In the afterglow of Republicans' Election Day romp – and facing a challenging campaign of his own in two years' time – Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said his focus would be on progress and "being productive."

But there are apparently some strings attached.

Toomey and some of the Senate's most outspoken conservatives – including Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) and Rand Paul (R., Ky.) -- sent a letter to colleagues in late November saying they would block any bills that aren't on their desks and available for review by 5 p.m. Friday, one week before Congress is set to wrap up its work for the year.

The letter, first reported by Politico, was led by Toomey as the head of the Senate Steering Committee, a conservative policy group.

"We want to ensure adequate review of all legislation so that we may support final passage in a prompt manner," said the Nov. 20 letter, signed by 12 Republicans. "We will regrettably be unable to grant our consent for items submitted after" the deadline. (Unanimous consent is needed to move bills through the Senate quickly and avoid the normal procedural hurdles -- it would almost certainly be needed to clear any deals cut early next week).

The Friday deadline would seem to short-circuit the prospect of any last-minute deals that might spring up in the final days of a lame duck Congress, when departing lawmakers can take votes without any electoral consequences. Rank-and-file lawmakers have long chafed at compromises cut in private meetings of Congressional leaders, leaving everyone else to learn the details on the fly, and sometimes be surprised by what exactly is buried in the depths of must-pass measures.

Republicans like Toomey, Cruz, Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) – another signee – may also be aiming to push key votes into January, when the GOP takes control of the Senate and can presumably push more conservative measures.

But it also complicates Republican leaders' hopes to pass major legislation before Congress leaves town. If they can't, the backlog would add to a busy Senate schedule in the new year and leaving GOP leaders with more legislative bombs to defuse once they take control. (Key issues in the balance include renewing a set of tax breaks popular with businesses and funding the government).

The Toomey letter stresses the importance of having time to review any bills.

In explaining the difficulty in "clearing the deck" of key bills before Republicans take control, the GOP's second ranking Senator, John Cornyn (R., Tex.), told Politico, "democracy's a messy business."

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