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Democrats Push McConnell on Ex-Im, Highway Bill Extensions

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Emboldened by their victory in the debate over surveillance powers, Senate Democrats are hoping to push Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on other high-profile items facing a time crunch, starting with a bipartisan reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which the Kentucky Republican opposes but the GOP's business wing supports. The bank charter expires at the end of this month.  

A day after the Senate cleared and President Barack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, following a lapse in the Patriot Act's surveillance powers, Democratic senators expressed hope McConnell would avoid similar deadline-busting crises such as the Export-Import Bank and an extension of the Highway Trust Fund. "The symbol of the leadership of this Congress should be an extension cord. All they're talking about is extending programs rather than investing in America and doing the right thing on a permanent basis," Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said at a Wednesday event featuring Republican small-business owners who rely on Export-Import Bank financing or insurance.  

McConnell has said he opposes reauthorizing the bank, but will allow it to come up for a vote in the Senate, meaning he could face what would assuredly be billed as another "defeat." There are more than enough Democrats and Republicans to pass an extension of the charter by a comfortable margin, with supporters predicting more than 60 votes overall. It's unclear how many Republicans would vote with McConnell.  

McConnell's Republican colleagues counter that their leader is well aware that letting a supermajority of the Senate work its will means, at times, he will not come out on top of a particular issue. That point was demonstrated Tuesday, when the USA Freedom Act McConnell vociferously opposed passed, 67-32. "If you’ve listened to Leader McConnell, he's said he wants to get back to regular order and he thinks that that will produce the best legislation for the country. So there are going to be times where legislation passes and he may have a different view, but what he's trying to do is get the Senate to function the way the Senate functions, which means open process, amendments, regular order. That's part of opening things up and getting the Senate moving," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said. "There’s always going to be criticism."  

Bank supporters are optimistic they have the votes. When Sen. Maria Cantwell spoke at the news conference with Durbin, she name-checked four Republican senators who have expressed support.  

"So many of my colleagues have been hiding behind a process. It is time for my colleagues like Blunt and Ayotte and Portman and Kirk to stand up and decide whether they are going to fight to have this bill, the Kirk-Heitkamp bill, considered on the Senate floor and extended or whether they're going to let the minority within their party win the day by letting the Export bank expire," the Washington Democrat said.  

Of course, Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and Rob Portman of Ohio have something else in common: They're on the ballot in hotly contested races in 2016.  

"The Export-Import Bank helps small and medium-sized businesses in New Hampshire compete in the global marketplace and create jobs, and failure to renew the bank's charter would cause job losses and hurt our economy," Ayotte said in a May 21 statement, for instance. "I'll continue to push Congress to reauthorize Ex-Im so that New Hampshire exporters continue to have access to financing that helps them sell their goods and services overseas and create more jobs."  

Cantwell said a vote on an amendment to the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill pending before the Senate would not be sufficient, particularly since the measure could fall by the wayside thanks to a filibuster threat from Democrats led by Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. The supporters clearly want to box in McConnell and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, using a vehicle that could move through both chambers.  

On Wednesday, as the House Financial Services Committee convened a hearing on the bank’s future, a small group of Republicans joined in a news conference urging their GOP colleagues to take a stronger stand against hardliners led by Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who are pushing for the bank charter's June 30 expiration.  

Sen. Amy Klobuchar postulated it could be an addition to a customs overhaul bill that's moving as a sidecar to the Senate-passed Trade Promotion Authority legislation now awaiting consideration in the House, though she preferred a standalone bill.  

But the Minnesota Democrat added, "We're looking for some kind of miracle here."  

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another GOP Ex-Im supporter, has said previously the measure would be the most likely venue for the bank amendment to actually become law after a test vote in June, even though it would be after a brief lapse in the program.  

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the lesson is that McConnell's strategy of waiting until the last minute and jamming something through had proved ineffective.  

"If there’s a lesson learned from this, it's that jamming the minority doesn’t always work," McCaskill said. "Harry Reid tried it a number of times also and it didn't work so well, either. I think we did the right thing not letting him jam us."  

Further down the road, so to speak, Reid is warning his caucus will oppose any attempt to move yet another stopgap extension of surface transportation programs heading into the August recess.  

Reid said Tuesday that New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer will spearhead caucus messaging on the highway bill, and the Democrats have already launched an online countdown clock ahead of the July 31 deadline, when its current short-term extension authorization expires.  

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, was a little more optimistic that a long-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund would result from the current climate.  

"I certainly walk into each one of these big issues and say this is another opportunity for the Senate to come together," Wyden said. "My hope is that with an issue that is time sensitive that we can get the Senate to do what it does best, which is come together when you really see what you're doing isn’t working. These short-term patches on transportation aren't working."  

Matthew Fleming and Emma Dumain contributed to this report. Related: McConnell Goes Down Swinging, Hard, on USA Freedom Act Some House Republicans Push for Ex-Im Renewal See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.