The pitched battle over a relatively unknown federal agency further inflamed the Republican Party’s ideological feud as the Senate voted Sunday to extend the life of the Export-Import Bank over intense conservative objections.
On a roll-call vote of 67 to 26, the chamber included language in a federal highway bill that would renew the charter of the bank, which extends loan guarantees to help U.S. corporations sell goods abroad. The vote split the GOP caucus almost evenly and exposed a deep division among the party’s leaders and presidential contenders.
“We serve the people, not our own egos,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), a 39-year member of the chamber, said before the vote.
His speech served as a rebuke to a trio of first-term senators who are running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, with a sharp focus on Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who on Friday accused Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) of lying about his intentions regarding the Ex-Im amendment.
The fight over the bank has taken on a life of its own in some corners of the conservative movement, particularly among tea party activists who are trying to move Republicans away from their traditional support for corporate America.
Opponents of the amendment such as Cruz deride the bank as a form of corporate welfare, particularly in its help for major corporations such as Boeing in its bid to sell jets overseas. Supporters say that dozens of other countries use similar agencies to prop up their companies in the global markets, noting that many U.S. jobs are linked to global trade backed by Ex-Im loans.
The Ex-Im Bank’s charter expired June 30 because House conservatives blocked any vote to allow it to issue new loans. In the 4
Sunday’s vote did little to guarantee that the bank would resume business as usual anytime soon. The underlying highway bill remains anathema to many House Republicans, not just because of the Ex-Im language. The Senate’s proposed three-year plan does not meet the usual six-year authorization for highway funding, and its policy prescriptions differ from those backed by members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The trust fund for highway programs will dry up Friday, just as Congress is slated to begin a nearly six-week recess.
If the House cannot approve the Senate highway plan, then McConnell may have no choice but to pass the House’s short-term extension of highway funding to buy more time to craft a six-year plan.
The House bill does not include extending the Ex-Im charter, which would leave the agency in a continued state of limbo: It can continue administering the loans it already has guaranteed but cannot do new loan work.
Cruz — who has been sagging in presidential polling for the past month as Donald Trump has soared — has placed the bank’s future at the center of his campaign. He uses it to rail against what he calls the “Washington cartel” of leaders such as McConnell and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Despite admonitions from his senior colleagues, Cruz has refused to apologize for his accusations and doubled down on his attack against McConnell.
“Speaking the truth about action is entirely consistent with civility,” he said during a floor speech, and he later told reporters that McConnell is the “so-called Republican leader.”
Cruz reiterated his accusation that behind closed doors, McConnell had assured Republicans that there was no deal with Democratic supporters of the Ex-Im Bank. In making that assurance, Cruz said Sunday, McConnell said that any senator would have a chance to offer amendments to the highway bill.
On Friday, McConnell closed off the amendment process, but for a symbolic vote on President Obama’s health-care law and one that would extend the loan agency’s authorization. In Cruz’s telling, those actions paved the way for Sunday’s vote to extend Ex-Im’s charter and, therefore, proved that McConnell had made such a deal with Democrats.
“We saw on Friday that promise was false,” Cruz said.
McConnell has remained silent on Cruz’s accusation and allowed his deputies to defend him.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.) rejected Cruz’s assertion that McConnell lied to the Republican caucus.
“He is mistaken,” Cornyn said of his home-state colleague, reiterating McConnell’s remarks that he assured Ex-Im supporters only of a chance to offer an amendment to the next must-pass legislation. “There was no misrepresentation made by the majority leader.”
Other Republicans said that once a bloc of Democrats delayed consideration of Obama’s trade agenda in May because of the loan bank’s expiring charter, McConnell made clear that they would get a chance to vote on Ex-Im.
A test vote in June showed 65 votes for extending its charter, easily clearing the filibuster threshold, and ever since, McConnell has said he would allow amending the next must-pass legislation
“Unless you’ve been completely missing in action, you’d know that this day was coming. This is the must-pass vehicle,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the lone presidential contender who supports the bank, told reporters Sunday.
A slight majority of Republicans, 26 of the 50 on hand for Sunday’s vote, opposed adding the Ex-Im amendment to the highway legislation, including two other presidential aspirants, Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
In Hatch’s remarks, he focused on Cruz but also singled out Paul and Rubio for criticism of how they were using the Senate floor to advance their campaign initiatives, including a marathon floor speech Paul delivered in May that began just as his team blasted out fundraising alerts to his supporters about the speech.
The Senate floor, Hatch said, “has been misused as a tool to advance personal ambitions, a venue to promote political campaigns, and even a vehicle to enhance fundraising efforts, all at the expense of the proper functioning of this body.”