The upcoming departure of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) may breathe new life into efforts to move a long-term highway bill and extension of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, lawmakers said yesterday.
As they returned to the Capitol for the first time since Boehner’s Friday announcement that he will step down from Congress at the end of October, senators are considering the legislative possibilities afforded by a speaker suddenly liberated from a raucous right wing. Boehner himself this weekend said he’d like to "clean the barn a little" for his successor (E&E Daily, Sept. 28).
Among the big-ticket agenda items under consideration are a highway bill, the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization and raising the debt limit.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told E&E Daily that Boehner’s decision could shift the dynamics on some difficult issues.
"I think that would probably work in our favor because if he’s talking about getting as much stuff done as he can before he leaves, you’d start with the most significant stuff and he might be forcing others to get into a position where they can’t oppose him," he said.
Inhofe said that’s particularly true for the long-term highway reauthorization that is desired by most of Congress but that has been stymied by ideological disagreements over paying for it.
"Everybody over there knows they want to have a long-term reauthorization bill," he said.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also sounded a bullish tone on the prospects for a highway bill, noting that the current extension expires at the end of October, "which is within Boehner’s time frame."
However, Portman said he didn’t think the timing of Boehner’s departure would help much in another tough fight that lies ahead — raising the debt ceiling — given that the limit is not expected to have been reached before the speaker leaves for good.
"I think the debt limit is harder because I don’t think we’re going to hit the debt point," he said. "Until you hit the debt point around here, the harder it is to mobilize support for doing something. So I think that’s more likely to be a year-end issue."
The next several weeks could also help make or break the Export-Import Bank. Observers see Boehner as more open to allowing a vote in the House compared with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who many expect to be the next speaker and would control the flow of business in the chamber.
"With Speaker Boehner, we really believed we had someone who was willing to work the system," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said yesterday evening. "Obviously, Kevin McCarthy has not been supportive of the Ex-Im Bank."
This summer, the Senate voted to reauthorize the bank in an amendment tucked into the chamber’s transportation bill. It received strong bipartisan support. But McCarthy said the House would not take up the package.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a top bank defender, said yesterday, "It’s in the bill we sent over. I hope they do the bill," referring to the transportation reauthorization.
Portman agreed that Ex-Im could hitch a ride on a highway bill.
"It’s related in an indirect way because part of the infrastructure improvements that we need to make is for ports, roads for exports," he said. "So I can see that having some logic."
The Senate language included a provision to prohibit the bank from discriminating against energy sources and is meant as an attack on President Obama’s policy to cut financing for many overseas coal plants.
Pro-coal lawmakers like Heitkamp have pushed for the nondiscrimination provision. And even though many Democrats don’t like it, they would rather see the bank reauthorized.
The Nuclear Energy Institute has also been a top bank defender. With few reactors being built in the United States, the industry wants help selling technology overseas.
NEI is releasing a broad survey tomorrow, including a question related to Ex-Im. It found that 79 percent of Americans agree with the concept of the bank, said a spokesman.
On Friday, Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) and a group of pro-bank Republicans introduced new legislation similar to the Senate-passed reauthorization.
Fincher said, "Reforming and reauthorizing the bank is an investment in our country, and Congress must make this work for the American people. I call on leadership to immediately bring my bill to the floor for a vote."
Boehner yesterday remained silent when asked whether he would bring Ex-Im to the House floor. Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said he hadn’t heard of any impending action.
Blair Holmes, spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the main backers of the Ex-Im Bank, said the group would continue lobbying for reauthorization.
"The chamber will continue its lobbying push to ensure Ex-Im is attached to a moving vehicle by the end of the year," she said. "The support from Congress is there. It is just a matter of finding the best path forward."