WASHINGTON – Lawmakers are pushing forward on must-pass highway legislation after an amendment reviving the federal Export-Import Bank provoked a heated clash on the Senate floor.
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The amendment advanced over a procedural hurdle by a vote of 67-26 in an unusual Sunday session, and was likely to win approval Monday to be included on the highway bill. But that was only after senior Senate Republicans publicly rebuked Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who last week accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying to him about whether there was a deal to allow the vote on the Export-Import Bank.
Conservatives strongly oppose the bank, calling it corporate welfare, and are trying to ensure that it stays dead after congressional inaction allowed it to expire June 30.
Three of the Senate's highest-ranking Republicans rose after the Senate convened Sunday afternoon to counter the stunning floor speech Cruz gave on Friday in which he attacked McConnell, R-Ky.
"Squabbling and sanctimony may be tolerated in other venues and perhaps on the campaign trail, but they have no place among colleagues in the United States Senate," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the Senate's president pro tempore. Cruz is running for president.
"Such misuses of the Senate floor must not be tolerated."
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After Hatch spoke, Cruz rose to defend himself, asserting, "Speaking the truth about actions is entirely consistent with civility."
For his part, McConnell said that given support for the Export-Import Bank, despite his own opposition no "special deal" was needed to bring it to a vote.
The bank is a federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers to buy U.S. goods. It's been renewed in the past with little or no controversy, but in recent years conservatives have turned it into a rallying cry. This year, the billionaire GOP donor Koch brothers have made it a focus.
The action came as the Senate tries to complete work on the highway bill 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.
With the Export-Import Bank likely added, the highway 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, though with funding for only three of those years. The House has passed a five-month extension of transportation programs without the Export-Import Bank included.
For the moment, leaders of both chambers are insisting that only their version of the legislation will fly. That leaves the ultimate outcome uncertain as the House enters its final week of work before Congress' annual August vacation, with the Senate set to go out of session a week later.
In a meeting Friday, McConnell told about 50 lobbyists and Senate aides that he doesn't plan to take up the House's five-month extension and that he wants the House to take up the Senate's six-year bill even if it means keeping the House in session through next weekend, according to a transportation industry official and a Senate aide familiar with the meeting.
McConnell, who said he has had conversations with House Speaker John Boehner about the transportation bill, also told the group there won't be a tax reform bill this year. The Obama administration and some lawmakers in both parties had hoped to find more money to pay for a six-year transportation bill by taxing profits U.S. companies park overseas, and House leaders are pushing their highway bill extension to buy more time to work on that issue.
The industry official and the Senate aide spoke on condition that they not be named because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.