With a series of obstacles being cleared late Monday, the Senate's on the road to passing a long-term highway bill, and one of the chamber's most conservative members is trying to make the case that his product will be more conservative than the House's stopgap approach.
Following the 62-32 vote to invoke cloture and thus limit debate on a highway bill substitute amendment that was the product of bipartisan negotiations led in the end by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and ranking Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, Environment and Public Works Chairman James M. Inhofe urged House Republicans to take up the Senate's bill.
"They know what the bill is, they've had it in front of them for two months," the Oklahoma Republican said. "When they see the bill and they see how much money it's going to cost if they don't pass it, then I think [House Republicans will realize] that the conservative position is to pass a long-term bill."
Inhofe was outspoken in his criticism of comments made earlier Monday by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in which the California Republican said the House had no intention of taking up a long-term Senate bill before the August recess.
"It doesn't have to go to conference, they could take up the bill and pass it. They've got it in their hands, they've read it. They're familiar with it. I bet their minds are made up as to which ones are going to vote for it," Inhofe said. "I'm not sure if they've ever whipped it, so I'm not sure what the numbers are."
He was refuting in advance the idea that the House would not want to see a piece of legislation that runs more than 1,000 pages dropped in its lap with little more than a day before highway funding is set to lapse.
If all debate time is used, the next Senate votes could happen early Wednesday morning.
If the same coalition votes to limit debate on the final product, a bill would be expected to pass the Senate by no later than around lunchtime Thursday, a day and a half before the Highway Trust Fund authorities dry up.
The bill now includes a long-term reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, a move that has been the key to the criticism of McConnell from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
"Tonight, the McConnell-Reid leadership team pushed through another win for the Washington Cartel, and they did so at the taxpayers’ expense. By casting votes in favor of cronyism and special interests, the Senate made clear what group matters most to them … and the answer is not the American people," Cruz said in a statement after the votes.
The Senate highway and bank combination package remains on the path to completion in part because a previously threatened standoff over an Obamacare repeal vote never came to a head. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, had previously indicated he would seek to overturn a parliamentary ruling that an amendment to roll back the Affordable Care Act was not germane.
When Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made that point of order, Lee and Cruz remained silent, and the amendment fell. Lee faced criticism earlier in the evening, including at a GOP Conference meeting, over a message sent by a staffer to outside groups calling for the procedural votes to be scored.
Lee had said in a statement that he would withdraw his bid for a vote if the leadership made a public commitment to seek to get a bill to repeal Obamacare to President Barack Obama's desk through budget reconciliation. That strategy has long been on McConnell's radar, though there were no new public commitments made from the leader Monday night.
Meanwhile, late Monday, House committee leaders filed a new three-month extension of surface transportation programs that would also address a funding issue for veterans programs. It would not, however, revive the authorization for the Export-Import Bank.
Matthew Fleming and Matt Fuller contributed to this report.
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