WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators overruled heated conservative opposition Monday and added a measure reviving the federal Export-Import Bank to must-pass highway legislation. But House Republicans declared the Senate transportation bill dead on arrival.
The developments set the two chambers on a collision course days ahead of a crucial highway deadline in the midst of the summer driving season. And the ultimate outcomes on the highway bill and the Export-Import Bill were uncertain, although it looked likely late Monday that Congress would consider a short-term highway extension.
As House members convened Monday for their final days of work before an annual August recess, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy ruled out taking up the Senate's highway bill, which cleared a procedural hurdle Monday and is headed for completion in the next several days.
"We're not taking up the Senate bill," the California Republican told reporters at the Capitol, adding that the Senate should instead take up the bill already passed by the House. "My best advice to the Senate is to get our highway bill moved forward," he said.
Hours later, in a hectic late-night session, the Senate voted 64-29 to include the provision reviving the Export-Import Bank as an amendment to its version of the highway bill. The bank, a federal agency that underwrites loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods, expired June 30 amid conservative opposition.
Supporters in the business community say the bank is necessary for U.S. competitiveness, but conservatives say it amounts to corporate welfare, and their objections pushed the vote Monday well past 10 p.m.
Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has led an angry charge against the bank and clashed with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about it, lashed out at McConnell over the outcome. "He turned his back on the American people and allowed one of the worst examples of corporate welfare our nation has ever known to be resurrected from the dead," Cruz said.
But the Senate action on the Export-Import Bank does not guarantee its continued survival since the House's transportation bill does not include the bank. The House bill is a five-month extension of current programs while the Senate's version authorizes $350 billion in transportation programs for six years, though only three of those are paid for.
Authority for federal highway aid payments to states will expire Friday at midnight without action. At the same time, if Congress doesn't act before then the balance in the federal Highway Trust Fund is forecast to drop below a minimum cushion of $4 billion that's necessary to keep aid flowing smoothly to states.
House Republican leaders say their approach would buy them time to try to come up with a tax reform deal coveted by the White House and some leaders in both parties, and use that to pay for an even longer-term highway bill. But McConnell has said publicly and privately that such a deal will be all but impossible to achieve. He wants to move legislation now to dispense with the highway issue at least through next year's elections, give certainty to states and avoid repeated fights over the issue.
"Time is running out to get this bill through Congress. We're up against a deadline at the end of week," McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor. "Jobs are on the line. Important infrastructure projects are too."
Despite the dispute between the two chambers there's little expectation Congress would let the Friday deadline come and go without action, given pleas from state and local transportation agencies, the construction industry and others. The likeliest outcome may be an even shorter-term extension, and late Monday House Republicans filed a three-month bill that lawmakers were expected to debate at a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning.
The nasty spat featuring Cruz has rocked the Senate in recent days, and more Republican infighting broke out Monday night, as an email surfaced from an aide to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, suggesting that conservative groups should take Lee's fellow Republicans to task if they opposed him on a legislative maneuver to advance a repeal of President Barack Obama's health care law.
The move angered Republicans, and Lee sought to contain the damage, telling colleagues in a closed-door meeting that he hadn't authorized the email, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. A statement from communications director Conn Carroll said Lee had personally apologized to McConnell. "This email is not how Sen. Lee does business," Carroll said. And Lee backed off from pushing the health care repeal vote on the highway bill.