While the political media has been enthralled with the incendiary spectacle of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign freak show, Congress has been doing its part to erode what little faith remains in our public institutions. The issue at hand is the Highway Trust Fund, which provides federal funding to states so that they can build and maintain roads and other infrastructure. It will run out of money at the end of the month unless Congress can pass legislation to replenish it.
For several years now, the trust fund has subsisted on a series of short-term funding extensions, and the House of Representatives passed yet another patch earlier this month that would reauthorize funding through the end of the year. The action now is in the Senate, in the hands of majority leader Mitch McConnell, who is trying to pass a longer-term (six years) funding bill in defiance of the House. And he has devised a cunning strategy for shepherding the bill to passage: repeal Obamacare.
Why is McConnell trying to repeal Obamacare as part of the highway funding bill? It has everything to do with the Export-Import Bank. Conservatives hate the Export-Import Bank, which provided federally subsidized loans to overseas companies so that they could buy American products. They consider the bank to be nothing more than corporate welfare, and were quite pleased when Congress declined to renew its charter at the end of last month. But Democrats and the “pro-business” wing of the Republican Party establishment throw in with groups like the Chamber of Commerce who very much want the Ex-Im Bank revived (political support for Ex-Im tends to be variable). McConnell wants to clear the path for a vote on an amendment to reauthorize Ex-Im’s charter, which will likely pass with bipartisan support.
That’s where the Obamacare amendment comes in. McConnell’s offering it up as a bone to the conservatives who oppose the resurrection of the Export-Import Bank. “Ex-Im shouldn't be the only vote we take on this bill, and under the compromise I just filed, it won't be.” McConnell said. “That's a much fairer way forward.”
“Compromise” is an interesting term to use in this context, since conservatives are getting nothing out of this. The amendment to kill Obamacare won’t pass – they never pass. It won’t even make it past the first procedural vote, given that Republican don’t have a filibuster-proof majority. It’s such a cynical and empty gesture that even Ted Cruz – the Senate’s unquestioned king of cynical and empty gestures – is outraged.
To add an extra layer of kick-in-the-teeth audacity to all this, today is the deadline for several committees from the House and Senate to submit language to repeal the ACA through budget reconciliation – a deadline that the Republicans will miss. Conservatives were promised a repeal-through-reconciliation vote precisely because the legislation would not be subject to a Democratic filibuster. It wouldn’t stand a greater chance of passing (Obama would veto it and the veto would be sustained) but it would allow for all Republican members of Congress to actually go on record voting against the ACA. Rather than getting what they were promised, McConnell is offering conservatives less than nothing as he clears the path for reauthorizing a government institution they loathe.
And assuming everything goes according to McConnell’s plan, it’s unclear whether the Senate highway bill even has a future. The House has already said it will not take up the Senate bill. If the Ex-Im reauthorization successfully makes it into the legislation, that will only anger the conservatives in the House who are militantly against the bank’s resurrection.
So what’s going to happen? Who the hell knows! All we can say for certain is that no matter what happens with the highway bill, it will not repeal Obamacare.