WASHINGTON – It's a rare Sunday session for senators, and on the agenda are efforts to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law and reviving the federal Export-Import Bank.
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Both are amendments to a must-pass highway bill that the Senate is trying to complete ahead of a July 31 deadline. If Congress doesn't act by then, states will lose money for highway and transit projects in the middle of the summer construction season.
Republicans have voted numerous times to repeal all or part of Obama's health law, and their latest effort is not expected to attract the 60 votes needed to move forward. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he was bringing it to a vote as a sweetener for Republicans, who also will have to vote on renewing the Export-Import Bank.
The little-known federal agency makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods. The bank has become a rallying cry for conservatives, who oppose it as corporate welfare. But the bank commands the votes to prevail in the Senate, thanks to support from Democrats and some Republicans whose states are home to large employers such as Boeing and Caterpillar that sell worldwide. McConnell committed several weeks ago to allowing the bank to come to a vote on the highway bill.
"Ex-Im shouldn't be the only vote we take on this bill, and under the compromise I just filed, it won't be," McConnell said Friday as he set up the votes. "First, it allows a vote on an amendment to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank, something nearly every Democrat wants. Second, it allows a vote on an amendment that would repeal Obamacare, something nearly every Republican wants, and something we will continue to fight for."
"That's a much fairer way forward," said McConnell.
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But McConnell's move drew an extraordinary denunciation from fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a presidential candidate. Cruz dismissed the health care vote as a meaningless "show vote" and accused McConnell of lying to him in denying that the leader had made a deal to bring the Export-Import Bank to a vote.
Cruz's inflammatory comments on the Senate floor Friday, which McConnell ignored, suggested that bank opponents will not go down without a fight.
Even if supporters prevail in adding the bank to the highway bill in the Senate, the legislation faces an uncertain future in the House, where there's strong opposition to the bank as well as to the underlying highway measure.
The Senate's version of the highway bill, which is on track to pass later in the week, sets policy and authorizes transportation programs for six years.
The House has passed a five-month extension of transportation programs without the Export-Import Bank attached, and House leaders of both parties are reluctant to take up the Senate's version.
Complicating matters, Congress is entering its final days of legislative work before its annual August vacation, raising the prospect of unpredictable last-minute maneuvers to resolve the disputes on the highway bill and the Export-Import Bank.