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On Highways and Ex-Im, House Watches Senate

Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., is not enthusiastic about the Senate's highway bill (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This week, the House is expected to take up legislation to make new major executive branch rules contingent upon congressional approval, consider a bill to streamline "accountability" at the Department of Veterans Affairs and vote on a whole slew of suspensions.  

But it's the legislative business not currently listed on the floor schedule that's likely to make the most headlines in the last days before the monthlong August recess. Namely: An extension of the highway bill and a possible reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.  

Plenty of House Republicans, including some in leadership, don't want to vote on either. The chamber two weeks ago passed a bill that would fund crucial surface transportation and infrastructure projects through mid-December, avoiding a July 31 depletion of the Highway Trust Fund coffers while buying Congress more time to come up with a long-term legislative solution.  

The Senate, however, is ignoring the House, instead pushing its own six-year bill. GOP leaders in the House and Senate appear to be heading toward a major standoff  that could bring the Highway Trust Fund to the very brink of insolvency, if not straight over the cliff for an indefinite period of time while disagreements are resolved.  

Late last week, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, was still unwilling to predict an outcome.  

"The House has passed a responsible bill to fund our highway program for the next five months. There's a lot of concern being raised by our committee chairman and others about the policy that's contained in the bill the Senate is considering," Boehner said at his weekly news conference. "But we don't know what that bill is going to look like until they pass it, and until they do, I think I'll reserve judgment on how we'll proceed."  

Another question for the House GOP is what to do about the Ex-Im Bank authorization language now attached to the Senate's highway bill. The Senate overcame a procedural hurdle Sunday to adopt an amendment to revive the bank's charter, which has been lapsed for nearly a month, and a Monday vote on the amendment itself will seal the deal.  

Whether to reauthorize the institution has been a political battle in the House, with fiscal hawks — who have allies in leadership in Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise — calling the bank "corporate cronyism." Any highway bill with Ex-Im Bank reauthorization language will lose Republican votes that might be needed to get the measure over the finish line.  

Boehner will likely uphold his longstanding promise to let members vote on the floor to strip an Ex-Im Bank reauthorization provision from any legislative vehicle that gets shipped from the Senate to the House, should it come to that. The calculation for that tactic is that the vote against reauthorization would fail, and conservative opponents know it, making the strategy a politically dicey one for leadership.  

Assuming the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization amendment stays in the highway bill, it could provide an awkward situation for the members on both sides of the aisle who want to see the bank live to see another day but don't like the Senate's highway bill. It could become a sweetener for Republicans and Democrats to ultimately vote "yes."  

Meanwhile, Democrats who were expressing reservations about the Senate highway bill last week don't seem to have changed their minds, even though the Senate agreed to change some of the controversial pay-fors.  

"Democrats are as exhausted by Republicans’ inability to get anything done as the media is with having to come up with new highway puns to describe this debate," said House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York in a statement to CQ Roll Call on July 24. "But I don’t want to pass up the opportunity to say that if the Republicans keep this up, there might not be a road for them to keep kicking the can down. The Republicans started this debate in the wrong direction by putting forward a bill with terrible offsets and they’ve taken another bad turn by letting the tea party tack on things like an [Affordable Care Act] repeal rider.  

"Enough is enough — we need a long-term highway bill that’s actually focused on updating our roadways and aging infrastructure, and we needed it yesterday," Crowley said.  

Of course, all these scenarios could be moot. The Senate could abruptly change course and vote on the House's five-month extension. Both chambers could decide to meet in the middle and pass a two-month highway bill.  

One thing's certain, though: Negotiations will go down to the very wire in a game of who will be the first to blink.  

 

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