Updated 4:57 p.m. | In a pair of losses for conservatives, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Sunday to revive the Export-Import Bank while failing to overcome a filibuster of an attempt to repeal Obamacare — with more fireworks to come.
The rare Sunday votes set the stage for the Senate to send a long-term highway bill tied to the Ex-Im Bank to the House later this week, but not before facing other gambits by conservatives, including a procedural vote forced by Sen. Ted Cruz regarding the Iran deal and an effort to deploy a maneuver akin to the "nuclear option." The Senate quickly adjourned for the night after holding the series of votes. The Obamacare repeal failed 49-43, well shy of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and attach the repeal to the bill aimed at avoiding a highway program shutdown at the end of July.
A bipartisan coalition then beat back a filibuster of the Export-Import Bank amendment proposed by Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., on a 67-26 vote. Neither vote was a surprise.
Cruz's Iran sanctions amendment was the next order of business, but his maneuver was quickly shot down.
In the aftermath of his floor speech Friday accusing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of telling a "simple lie," the Republican presidential hopeful set up a procedural vote on whether he should be allowed to offer an amendment to the highway bill to bar sanctions relief for Iran until the country releases Americans and recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.
Procedurally, Cruz sought to offer a third-degree amendment — something barred by longstanding Senate precedent. Allowing such amendments would upend the prerogative of the majority leader to control the flow of debate through the process known as filling the amendment tree.
Cruz's effort failed on a voice vote after being unable to secure a "sufficient second" for a roll call vote (requiring the backing of 11 senators). Cruz's frequent ally, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, saw a similar rejection on an amendment that would block funding for Planned Parenthood.
Lee also wants to go a step further. He has a proposal for a vote on an Obamacare repeal that would doom the highway bill — and take a big step toward subjecting the Senate to majority rule through the use of a nuclear option.
The Utah Republican said Friday the Senate will have an opportunity to add the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to the Export-Import Bank amendment with a simple majority.
"The first Obamacare vote on Sunday will have a 60 vote threshold, and Democrats will likely block it," Lee said in a statement. "But thanks to the sequencing of the votes we just locked in, Republicans will have the opportunity [to] resurrect that Obamacare amendment later on in the process, and put it back before the Senate in a manner that only requires a simple-majority vote."
But making that move would require a declaration by senators that the full repeal is "germane," a simple-majority vote that would end the longstanding practice of construing the germaneness of amendments in the narrowest terms when the Senate has already invoked cloture cutting off filibusters.
If Cruz and Lee had both prevailed on their respective procedural maneuvers, there could be virtually unlimited amendments considered with simple majority thresholds. That's a situation akin to what happens during annual debate on budget resolutions, which is also known as the "vote-a-rama."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., warned against his colleagues setting the new precedent on amendments envisioned by Cruz, saying doing so would "destroy regular order in the Senate. It would create chaos in the Senate."
"If [Cruz] succeeds, it will destroy a crucial part of what we call the regular order in the United States Senate. He will create a precedent that destroys the orderly consideration of amendments. There will be unlimited amendments. there will be chaos," Alexander said. "Ironically, while destroying regular order, he wouldn't get the vote on the Iran amendment that he seeks. That's because if he overrules the chair, the Senate leaders have a right to offer an amendment to fill that new branch of the tree before he does."
If either effort passed, it would likely torpedo the underlying highway bill, which is a compromise product worked out between McConnell and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
There would still be another cloture vote on the underlying bill itself, and Democrats could be expected to oppose it. In order to pass the bill at that point, Republicans would have to go full-nuclear and eliminate the 60-vote threshold for cloture.
Cruz, for one, has been on the record since at least January in opposition to ending filibusters , even to roll back the Affordable Care Act.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report. Related: Despite Rebukes, Ted Cruz Doubles Down on Charge Mitch McConnell Lied Ted Cruz Accuses Mitch McConnell of Lying About Ex-Im Bank Deal (Video)