Ex-Im Extension Advances in U.S. Senate Highway Bill Debate

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) talks to reporters with Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) (L) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) after the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Senate advanced a proposal to extend the U.S. Export-Import Bank’s charter as part of legislation to finance highways and mass transit for three years.

The 67-26 vote during an unusual Sunday session moves forward the Senate’s effort to pass the highway bill as the Highway Trust Fund’s authorization is set to expire after July 31. The House has passed a different plan, one without an Ex-Im renewal, putting pressure on both chambers to consider a short-term extension.

“Time is running short to get a bill through Congress,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

Also on Sunday, Senate Democrats blocked Republicans’ proposal to add a full repeal of President Barack Obama’s health-care law to the highway measure. The vote was 49-43, with 60 needed to move the amendment forward.

Failure to pass a highway bill before the end of the month would mean payments to states for road and bridge projects could soon be reduced and spread out, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Friday.

“I hope we don’t keep perpetuating the problems, and not looking squarely at what the country needs,” Foxx told reporters.

House Republican leaders said last week they won’t consider the Senate measure, which would finance highways and mass transit for three years as part of a six-year policy plan.

Tax Rules

The House plan, H.R. 3038, passed on July 15, would fund highways through Dec. 18 with $8.1 billion in revenue gained mostly by tightening tax compliance rules. The measure is intended to leave time for talks on finding longer-term sources of money for infrastructure.

Opposing the Senate plan, H.R. 22, is the banking industry, which objects to a provision that would reduce dividends to banks from the Federal Reserve.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama also opposes the Senate’s plan to help fund the highway bill by reducing the 6 percent dividend paid by the Fed to member banks. It would be cut to 1.5 percent for banks with more than $1 billion in assets, which is expected to generate more than $16 billion for the highway fund.

Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, is sponsoring the amendment to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank through September 2019.

Ex-Im Bank

The Ex-Im Bank provides loans, loan guarantees and insurance to aid overseas sales by U.S. companies. The 81-year-old bank, renewed without controversy for decades, is opposed by conservative Republicans who say it benefits only a few large corporations that don’t need government assistance.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who opposes reauthorizing the bank, on Sunday called it “a New Deal relic that has outlived any usefulness it might have had.” He added, “If a project is worthy, private banks will step in to finance it.”

Kirk’s amendment would require the bank to increase the share of its lending that goes to small businesses, mandate an inspector general audit of its risk management practices and create a chief ethics officer for the bank.

The bank can’t approve new applications unless Congress acts to revive it, though it can continue work on existing agreements.

Immediately after the Ex-Im vote, senators refused to support a bid by Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a presidential candidate, to override a procedural rule and add an amendment regarding the Iran nuclear talks to the bill.

Rebuking Cruz

Several fellow Republicans also rebuked Cruz for accusing McConnell of being a liar Friday after the majority leader announced plans for the Ex-Im Bank vote. Cruz insisted that McConnell had promised not to seek a renewal of the bank.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of leadership, said Sunday, “There was no misrepresentation made by the majority leader.”

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said that use of the Senate floor to advance political campaigns “must not be tolerated.” Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said overriding the rules would lead to chaos in the chamber.

The House has voted about 60 times to repeal or delay all or part of Obamacare. The Senate was under Democratic control until January.

Congress adopted a budget in May that would allow Republicans to use a procedure called reconciliation to bypass Democrats and send a repeal of Obamacare to the president’s desk. Obama would veto that, though, and Democrats would provide enough votes to sustain the veto.

Options Limited

Congressional Republicans last month acknowledged their options were limited in replacing Obamacare after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law’s federal subsidies.

Foxx said Friday that an expiration of highway funding could trigger 4,000 layoffs at the Transportation Department, including employees at the Federal Highway Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

As the Highway Trust Fund balance runs low, the U.S. will deliver remaining funds to states based on allocation funding until it’s out of money, Foxx said.

“It’s definitely not a small impact,” he said.

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