House, Senate heading for showdown on highway funding

House, Senate heading for showdown on highway funding
© Greg Nash

Senate and House Republicans are heading to a showdown over transportation spending.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellStudy: Trump tops recent GOP presidents in signing bills in first 100 days Senate passes stopgap funding bill to avert shutdown Let’s never talk about a government shutdown — ever again MORE (R-Ky.) wants to pass a six-year highway deal before Thursday to give the House time to take it up before the August recess, according to a Senate GOP leadership source.

But opposition to the Senate bill is growing on the other side of the Capitol.

House Republican leaders want the Senate to instead pass a five-month highway patch and won’t say whether they would give the Senate transportation bill a vote in their chamber.

McConnell is betting that House GOP leaders will relent once they have the bill in their laps, with the Highway Trust Fund due to expire on Aug. 1.

The House adjourns for the August recess at the end of next week.

“The House will have to make a decision. The temporary bill is just another patch,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate's No. 2 Republican: Border tax 'probably dead' McConnell: Senate will pass short-term funding bill to avoid shutdown The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Texas).

McConnell tried a similar gambit in May when he attempted to jam the House with a clean extension of the National Security Agency’s surveillance authority. It blew up when he failed to muster the 60 votes needed to pass it out of the Senate.

The Senate leader was still mulling his legislative options on Thursday, but senators and aides said the most likely scenario is that he will offer the six-year highway bill as a substitute amendment on the floor Friday to get the ball rolling and then fill the amendment tree to limit the debate.

Senators and aides then expect McConnell to file cloture on an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, setting up a vote on Sunday or Monday on the controversial agency. 

A Senate aide said McConnell could file cloture — the motion to end debate and proceed to a vote — on the highway bill and the underlying legislative vehicle on the same day he does so for the Ex-Im Bank amendment. That maneuver would allow the Senate to wrap up work on the highway measure and get it to the House by Wednesday.

Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said Thursday afternoon that no decisions had been made on how to proceed and cautioned there are a variety of paths under consideration.

But other Senate aides said other routes require unanimous consent, an unlikely proposition given strong conservative opposition to the Ex-Im Bank.

Lawmakers and aides said a vote on the bank may be postponed until Monday, but that could push a final vote on the highway package until Thursday unless all 100 senators agree to yield back procedural time.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE (R-Ohio) said he would wait to see what legislation McConnell can push through the upper chamber.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan's home state highlights challenge for GOP high-risk insurer pools Trump 'disappointed' in congressional GOP Bipartisan push grows for new war authorization MORE (R-Wis.), one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, wants instead to pass a five-month patch. That would give him more time to negotiate with the White House on an overseas corporate tax reform package that would generate enough revenue to fully pay for a six-year highway bill.

The Senate deal has offsets covering only the first three years.

“There is a lot of concern being raised by our committee chairmen and others about the policy that's contained in the bill the Senate is considering,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE said Thursday morning.

“But we don't know what that bill is going to look like until they pass it.  And until they do, I think I will reserve judgment on how we'll proceed.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Wednesday dismissed the Senate bill as not likely to get a House vote and suggested merging the Senate and House measures in a conference negotiation. That would require both chambers to pass a short-term patch to avoid a highway shutdown in August.

The downside to the conference scenario — at least to some lawmakers — is that it would leave the Ex-Im Bank, which saw its charter expire at the end of June, twisting in the wind.

But McConnell wants to get an accomplishment on highway funding now. He doesn’t want the issue to become balled up with talks to reform the tax code and possibly lift the budget caps for defense and non-defense programs.  

“This bipartisan bill would fund our roads, highways and bridges for longer than any transportation bill considered by Congress in a decade — and the highway proposal will do so without increasing taxes or adding to the deficit,” he said Thursday morning. “That's no small achievement.”

His deputy, Cornyn, said House Republican leaders should embrace the Senate bill as the most concrete solution to the highway funding shortfall.

“This gives us the present reality of three years that we don’t have to deal with this. There’s a lot of good reasons that we need to get this behind us much like the … ‘doc fix’ rather than just continue to do things by kicking the can down the road,” he said.  

The compressed Senate schedule leaves little time to vote on amendments, such as a proposal that Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulRand Paul to teach a course on dystopias in George Washington University Destructive 'fat cat' tax law a complete flop. It's time to repeal it. Trump must take action in Macedonia to fix damage done by Obama and Clinton MORE (R-Ky.) is pushing to block federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

McConnell will try to negotiate an agreement to vote on Paul’s Planned Parenthood amendment, but Democrats are already saying they will block it.

If Paul can’t get a vote on his proposal, it’s unlikely he’ll grant consent to allow other senators to vote on their own amendments. Senate sources say they expect this stalemate will scuttle the prospect of amendment votes next week.

Paul, one of the conservative opponents of the Ex-Im Bank, had not yet decided as of Thursday whether he would insist on holding the vote on the bank’s reauthorization Sunday or let it slip to Monday to spare colleagues from weekend work.

“We’re going to try to do everything we can. Several of us will try to stop it. I don’t know what that means in terms of time agreements,” Paul said.

The bill passed a crucial procedural hurdle Thursday when 62 senators voted to stop a filibuster and begin floor debate. But the measure could still derail as lawmakers comb through its provisions.

Some Republicans grumbled over last-minute changes made to the bill to persuade Democrats to vote to end the filibuster.

“People voted for it before they understood what deal was made to get the 14 Democratic votes. People are pouring through that now and it’s raising additional questions,” said Sen. Dan CoatsDan CoatsSouth Korea missile defense online in ‘coming days’ Sanders on skipping WH Korea briefing: 'I did not want to be part of a photo op' Overnight Defense: Senators go to White House for North Korea briefing | Admiral takes 'hit' for aircraft carrier mixup | Lawmakers urged to beef up US missile defense MORE (R-Ind.).