7/24 a.m.: For the latest on Senate parliamentary maneuvering, see this update.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is clearing the way to restart the Export-Import Bank, an expired corporate-welfare agency he has voted against, as part of the highway bill in the Senate this week.
Conservatives say McConnell's actions show he never really opposed the agency — that deep down, McConnell takes the K Street position rather than the free-market stance. McConnell's office contends that pragmatic politics are more complicated than that, and that keeping Ex-Im dead is beyond the majority leader's power.
In the labyrinthine world of Senate procedure, it's hard to get a clear picture of what's going on, but this much is clear:
1) There are more than 60 votes in the Senate to restart Ex-Im,
2) McConnell, nevertheless, has the power to keep Ex-Im dead by blocking a vote.
Here's the background:
In late May, McConnell, in order to get enough votes to pass Trade Promotion Authority, cut a deal on the floor of the Senate with a group of Boeing-state senators, led by Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington. McConnell had pledged to allow an Ex-Im vote "on an amendable vehicle in June," his office told me then.
Something like that happened June 10. Sen. Kelly Ayotte got a vote on an Ex-Im amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment passed, but for procedural reasons, supporters then withdrew it. Ex-Im's charter then expired on June 30, and the agency is currently in liquidation.
Arguably, McConnell has thus fulfilled his promise to Cantwell. But he has made it clear that there will be another vote on restarting Ex-im, this time on the highway bill, currently in the Senate.
As of Thursday afternoon, it was clear that the amendment process on the highway bill wouldn't really be an open amendment process. In fact, the only amendment allowed before the Senate invokes cloture on the bill — and thus, the only non-germane amendment allowed — will be the amendment to restart Ex-Im. This is because McConnell changed, midstream, his procedural method for passing the highway bill.
The arcana, in brief: The actual bill the Senate has taken up, HR 22, is not actually a highway bill, and so once the Senate votes to proceed to the bill (on Friday, most likely), McConnell will propose an amendment to add the highway legislative text. Originally, McConnell wrote this amendment as a "substitute amendment," which it really is. But at some point this week, he changed the amendment so that it would be a "perfecting amendment."
The paper amendment filed has the word "substitute" crossed out, and the word "perfecting" penciled in.
The relevant difference here: If it were technically a substitute amendment, many amendments could be made to the substitute bill. If the Boeing senators added Ex-Im renewal, conservatives could respond with an amendment actually reforming Ex-Im, such as capping its size, shortening the duration or curbing how much of its financing could go to one exporter.
But with a perfecting amendment, typically only one amendment is allowed unless there is unanimous consent for more. McConnell has determined that one amendment will be the Boeing senators' Ex-Im amendment.
McConnell isn't simply allowing a vote on Ex-Im. He's privileging Ex-Im's resurrection. Conservatives have other amendments, no less germane than Ex-Im, to offer. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in a phone interview Tuesday night, told me, "Instead of reauthorizing this cronyism, Republican leadership could schedule a vote" on defunding Planned Parenthood, blocking federal funding to sanctuary cities or other measures, including an Iran provision.
So why is McConnell privileging the Ex-Im measure? The relevant consideration for McConnell, according to his office, is not the promise he made to Cantwell over the trade vote, but his desire to pass a long-term highway bill.
McConnell's office tells me that he couldn't get enough votes to pass the highway bill if Ex-Im were not included — Democrats, as well as the most pro-Ex-Im Republicans, would sink the bill if McConnell didn't allow them to stick Ex-Im renewal into it. Democratic leadership aides agree.
Conservatives generally believe McConnell doesn't actually oppose the Export-Import Bank — that his "No" votes and his speeches against it are mere posturing, made necessary by his 2014 primary challenge and the conservative tilt of his conference.
A more generous interpretation is that McConnell cares more about passing a highway bill and a free-trade bill than he does about killing Ex-Im. McConnell's side rejects this reading, too, arguing that it would be impossible to actually keep Ex-Im dead because there are more than 60 votes in the Senate to bring it back to life.
But there's also the argument that the longer Ex-Im is in liquidation, and thus unable to hand out new subsidies, the easier it is to kill the agency permanently. Absent Ex-Im, U.S. exporters are turning more to private sector export financing, stimulating that industry. Give private export finance the entire August recess to expand, and K Street's sky-is-falling argument looks even more absurd.
It's impossible to read McConnell's mind. But it's clear he desires, deeply, to be seen as a majority leader who knows how to govern, not merely fight. Perhaps this perception will help him keep his majority, or help his party win the White House.
But it's hard to make sense of the argument that voters should vote Republican so that McConnell can cut deals about subsidies with Sen. Maria Cantwell in order to pass Sen. Barbara Boxer's tax-and-spend highway bill.