The following article originally appeared on POLITICO
Sen. Mitch McConnell is sprinting toward a showdown with House Republicans over infrastructure programs on the brink of expiring, and the Export-Import Bank — an agency the GOP leader loathes — could be his ace in the hole.
McConnell, the Senate majority leader, isn’t shy about his distaste for the government-backed program — on Sunday he called it a “New Deal relic” that’s outlived its usefulness. But renewing the charter for the bank, the country’s chief credit export agency, could be the key to pushing his ambitious transportation bill through Congress.
House leaders are divided over whether to re-up the bank, which Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other hardline conservatives decry as “crony capitalism.” And Cruz ruffled more than a few feathers Friday when he accused McConnell of telling a “flat-out lie” about his plans for the Ex-Im bank.
But enough House lawmakers support renewing Ex-Im that they could back an otherwise detestable transportation bill that does just that. And the White House has made clear that whatever transportation bill lands on the president’s desk come end-of-July better have an Ex-Im reauthorization attached.
That leaves both chambers with an old-fashioned game of chicken, as the clock ticks down on a July 31 deadline to do something — anything — before transportation programs expire, shuttering funding for state projects and furloughing thousands of government employees.
In a meeting with transportation lobbyists Friday afternoon, McConnell said he was open to a short-term extension if it was needed but insisted that any temporary patch the Senate sends over to the House will not have an Ex-Im provision attached.
It’s all but guaranteed lawmakers won’t reach consensus on a long-term transportation bill by Friday, when current highway and transit authority expires. And House leaders are unlikely to just take up the Senate plan and move it through the chamber, in effect agreeing to six years of transportation policy that House lawmakers had no hand in developing.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who opposes the Senate proposal, said Sunday that his sense is that “the hurdles that have been thrown up are probably overcomeable” in the upper chamber, but that “the House Republicans show no interest in doing this. … Bad policy, bad pay-fors, better alternative.”
House leaders in both parties spent last week urging the Senate to just take up its plan — a mid-December extension that gives lawmakers a handful of months to pull together a sweeping tax revamp that would also provide several years of infrastructure funding. And some top Senate Democrats have indicated that is also their preferred method.
But McConnell is highly skeptical of an international tax overhaul coming together this year and is ready to clear the Highway Trust Fund off the congressional calendar through the 2016 election cycle.
“Read my lips: There will not be international tax reform this year,” McConnell said in Friday’s meeting, according to multiple sources. The Kentucky Republican also stressed that the offsets being used to provide three years of guaranteed funding likely wouldn’t be around later in the fall, according to sources in the meeting, because lawmakers would try to use the pay-fors for sequester-related budget relief.
What unfolds over the next few days in the Senate could put House leaders in quite a pickle, just as lawmakers are antsy to leave town for the August recess.
If the bipartisan bill McConnell has crafted with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) passes the Senate later this week, the upper chamber could also move a short-term extension, possibly around two months, and send both proposals to the House.
House leaders would then be faced with a choice: Bring up the McConnell bill with three years of infrastructure funding and an Ex-Im renewal and embrace it as is, or take up the short-term patch sans any Ex-Im provisions and risk the ire of the White House.
As with everything in Congress, there are no guarantees. And it’s possible House GOP leaders could find some way to out-maneuver the Senate and force the upper chamber to swallow their five-month patch, or find a creative third way.
But, at least in the Senate, an Ex-Im revival could be just the pot-sweetener needed to rally enough Democrats to ensure final passage of the bipartisan infrastructure plan.
An amendment renewing the bank, which expired at the end of June, easily cleared a procedural hurdle Sunday afternoon, setting the stage for a vote on the proposal Monday.
Monday’s Ex-Im vote is expected to succeed. And coupling an Ex-Im revival with the multiyear highway and transit bill could be enough to convince tepid Senate Democrats to support the measure, sending the legislation over to the House later this week just before current authority is set to expire.
“I could support a bill with this framework,” said Sen. Ben Cardin after Sunday’s vote. Cardin, a big backer of Ex-Im, voted against advancing the bill last week and noted he still has concerns with some of the bill’s highway and rail safety provisions he said must be worked out first.
The Maryland Democrat is likely not alone. If the McConnell-Boxer bill is the only path forward for Ex-Im, that could convince enough Senate Democrats who are otherwise lukewarm to the bill’s policy and offsets to vote in support of final passage.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who has been forthcoming about supporting the bill despite still having qualms with several aspects, said he’s all for the Ex-Im language. “I mean, it’s a useful agency,” he told POLITICO. “It helps businesses across the country, including in Maine, and it returns money to the Treasury.”
McConnell again indicated his openness Sunday to considering amendments that are actually relevant to the bill, once the Senate moves past unrelated issues like Ex-Im reauthorization.
But Senate aides have said it is unlikely the chamber will have the time to fit in debate on many of the more than 260 amendments that have been filed, given the goal of reaching a passage vote before the House plans to gavel out for August recess on Thursday.
On Sunday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said it’s a shame that Senate leaders are allowing unrelated issues to dominate so much of the debate while dozens of amendments sit in the queue, untouched.
“I’m really disappointed and angry that these irrelevant amendments are receiving votes when a number of the very pertinent and urgent measures I have proposed may be denied votes,” Blumenthal told POLITICO.
“Transportation safety, auto defects, NHTSA powers, penalties for violations — are all the subjects of my amendments that are directly pertinent and important to this bill may not receive votes because we’re spending a lot of time and energy on repealing the Affordable Care Act, which is totally irrelevant,” Blumenthal said.
The Connecticut Democrat has offered a bevy of amendments, including requiring used car dealers to fix defective vehicles before selling them; requiring companies that rent trucks to provide customers with maintenance reports; reuqiring the federal government to fine or imprison — or both — auto industry executives who fail to inform the federal auto safety watchdog agency and the public about auto safety issues in a timely manner.
“So I’m hopeful we can avoid this morass and really focus on the measures that are profoundly significant and also relevant to this bill,” he said.
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