House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Monday that the House won’t consider the three-year highway bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is racing to finish this week.
The House has already passed its own four-and-a-half month highway bill. But the Highway Trust Fund — which provides federal funding for transportation projects across the country — will expire on its deadline of midnight July 31 unless the two chambers can agree on a version, or pass a stop-gap measure before then.
McCarthy said the House will leave as scheduled on Thursday for a month-long recess, leaving McConnell to decide whether to forfeit his push for a longer-term bill in order to prevent the trust fund from expiring. The quickest path to resolving the issue would be for the Senate to approve the House-passed extension that would renew $8.1 billion in funding through Dec. 18.
“We are not taking up the Senate bill,” McCarthy said. “A five-month extension is the best bill to have so you can get a long-term bill that is fully paid for.”
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Even if the two chambers can agree on a highway bill, that still leaves the Export-Import bank, whose charter expired on June 30. The Senate is expected to this week pass an amendment renewing it, but House conservatives are staunchly opposed to that move — and the bank is likely to be left in limbo during the August recess.
Accepting the House highway bill would be a significant blow to McConnell, who has dedicated weeks to negotiating the long-term package. He has been directly involved in the talks and worked personally with Environmental and Public Works Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to craft the bill that the Senate is currently considering.
McConnell did not acknowledge on Monday that the House still plans to leave town shortly after the Senate completes work — but he urged senators to stick together.
“We’re up against a deadline at the end of the week — jobs are on the line, important infrastructure projects are too,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Let’s hope we can all get it across the finish line.”
It won’t be easy for McConnell to back away from his long-term funding bill if it passes as expected. In order to pass the legislation before the trust fund expires on Friday night, McConnell would have to immediately convince the Senate to embrace the House bill he has rejected for weeks. McConnell and House leaders could agree on a shorter extension for two to three months. But McCarthy said Monday an extension that short wouldn’t be worth it.
“It would probably cost us the same amount of money as a five months,” McCarthy said. “You already have a five-month bill sitting in the Senate. Why would you want to regenerate everything again?”
Furthermore, all 100 senators would have to agree not to oppose the House bill if McConnell wants to avoid the procedural hurdles necessary to bring up a new bill before the deadline.
On Ex-Im, McConnell battled members of his own party to allow an amendment vote to reauthorize the bank.
But House and Senate conservatives oppose the government-backed bank that helps finance international trade deals between private companies. McConnell promised Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) the vote when she agreed not to pick a fight over the bank’s future during consideration of trade legislation earlier this year.
That promise and the subsequent vote led to a dustup with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who said McConnell lied about his plans.
The House highway bill extends current funding through December to allow House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to complete work on a plan that would use revenue from overhauling the international tax code to pay for a multi-year bill that could potentially include increased spending.
McConnell opposes nearly every element of that plan. He pushed for reforms to the Highway Trust Fund and wants to fund his three-year extension through spending cuts and program changes.