Senate debate limps on after weekend detour

By Geof Koss, Sean Reilly | 07/27/2015 07:41 AM EDT

The Senate continues to slog through procedural votes on its multi-year transportation bill, after internal Republican dissent and presidential politics boiled over during a rare Sunday session.

The Senate continues to slog through procedural votes on its multi-year transportation bill, after internal Republican dissent and presidential politics boiled over during a rare Sunday session.

The chamber is slated to vote at 10 p.m. tonight on a Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) amendment to the highway bill that would extend the Export-Import Bank of the United States, following yesterday’s 67-26 vote to end debate on the proposal.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, the lead Democratic negotiator on transportation, told E&E Daily yesterday that including the Ex-Im Bank extension bodes well for the underlying bill.


"I think it’s a good thing because it will bring people from both sides," she said.

Yet it also further complicates Senate efforts to trump the five-month highway extension favored by the House, given entrenched opposition among House GOP leaders to reviving the Ex-Im Bank and the fact that the lower chamber is scheduled to leave town for the long August recess this week.

Tonight’s Senate vote could take place earlier if all 100 senators agree to waive post-cloture debate time, but that appears unlikely given yesterday’s acrimony.

During an extraordinary session, Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) decried Friday’s floor comments by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that many saw as a breach of decorum and the chamber’s rules, in which the GOP presidential candidate accused Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of a "flat-out lie" by setting up a vote on the Ex-Im Bank amendment.

While not mentioning Cruz by name, Hatch reminded senators they’re not allowed to impugn the integrity of their colleagues’ motives on the floor. "We serve the people, not our own egos," Hatch said.

An unrepentant Cruz later tried to call up an amendment that would have blocked the Obama administration from lifting sanctions against Iran unless Tehran first acknowledged Israel’s right to exist and freed U.S. captives. Because McConnell has already blocked senators from offering amendments using the parliamentary move known as "filling the tree," the Iran amendment was ruled out of order, and Cruz’s efforts to overturn the chair’s ruling failed by a voice vote.

A second amendment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would have barred the federal government from funding Planned Parenthood met the same fate as Cruz’s gambit.

By denying the senators’ the right to roll call votes to overturn the chair’s ruling, the chamber essentially rebuked the pair for attempting to circumvent long-held debate rules through the so-called "nuclear option," which can be used to circumvent the filibuster.

Speaking to reporters off the floor, Cruz railed against Senate leaders from both parties, whom he accused of "aggressively" whipping his colleagues against them.

"What we just saw a moment ago is unprecedented in the annals of Senate history," Cruz said. "It consisted of the majority leader and minority leader denying members the right to have votes on their amendments and indeed the ability to even have a roll call vote."

Speaking before the fracas, Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) was unfazed by the intraparty squabble and predicted the Senate would pass the transportation bill this week.

"They’re making points and running for president," he told E&E Daily. "These things happen."

While the House has shown little appetite for the Senate legislation, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) predicted that passing a multi-year bill would whet the lower chamber’s appetite.

"If we pass this long-term highway extension, there’s going to be a lot of members over there who are going to want to do that because they don’t want to have to keep dealing with it every six months," he told reporters. "The strategy is to sort of count on it to say, ‘Look, this is what a whole lot of people want, there’s projects in it for everybody’s state, et cetera.’ So I think you’re going to see that sort of pressure."

However, the Senate first has to sort the tangles in its own bill, with senators from both parties filing dozens of amendments. It remains to be seen whether any will receive votes, although McConnell signaled that more amendments may be allowed.

Some senators suggested they’re unlikely to support the underlying bill without changes. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said yesterday that she would vote against the measure as currently drafted because of its reliance on the sale of Strategic Petroleum Reserve oil as a pay-for.

Although the bill would run for six years, it would only assure funding for the first three, from fiscal 2016 through 2018, the Congressional Budget Office confirmed in a score released late Friday. Under the legislation, authorized yearly road and bridge spending from the Highway Trust Fund would rise from about $40.3 billion this year to $45.1 billion in 2018, according to an analysis by the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank. Authorized transit spending would increase from $8.6 billion to $9.9 billion during the same time, the group reported Friday.

The bill’s overall price tag for the three-year period would be about $173 billion, financed in part with $46 billion in transfers from the general Treasury and the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund, according to the CBO score, or slightly less than the $47 billion figure previously cited by lawmakers.

While the Highway Trust Fund is supposed to be supported solely by federal fuel tax receipts, a combination of factors — including improved vehicle fuel efficiency and congressionally set spending demands — mean that the fund has needed repeated bailouts since 2008. If signed into law, the Senate bill would push the total since 2008 to more than $110 billion.

The measure also contains a heavy load of policy changes potentially affecting everything from electric vehicle charging stations to bee populations. Overall, Inhofe said in the Republicans’ weekly radio address Saturday, the legislation would "streamline regulations, enforce new transparency measures so taxpayers would know how their money is being spent, and advance research and innovation in transportation" to create a globally competitive infrastructure system.

The Government Accountability Office, for example, would have to review administrative spending at the Federal Highway Administration, while Amtrak’s lawsuit payout cap would be raised from $200 million to $295 million in response to the Philadelphia train derailment two months ago that left eight people dead and many more injured. The bill would delay the deadline for railroads to complete implementation of the safety system known as "positive train control" from the end of this year to December 2018. Federal regulators agree that most commuter and large freight railroads won’t make the existing timetable, but the Obama administration wants to decide extension requests on a case-by-case basis.

The White House, which has already endorsed a House-passed funding extension that would last only through mid-December, is reviewing the Senate bill with particular attention to safety and financing provisions, spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing late last week.

Among other provisions, the bill would require the Department of Transportation to designate national corridors to identify "the needs and most vital locations" for fuel and charging stations for national gas and electric vehicles, according to an accompanying explanatory report. DOT officials would also have to "encourage" states to sow vegetation beneficial to bees and other pollinators along highway rights of way.

The proposal could affect plantings along millions of roadside acres, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said at an Environment and Public Works Committee markup last month (Greenwire, June 24). The possible impact is "huge," said Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership, a San Francisco-based group that has been working on the provision for several years.

It recognizes the potential, she said Friday, to take a "disturbance" like a road and "also make it a benefit."