A Highway Bill Jammed With 2016 Jockeying

GOP presidential contenders want to use the transportation debate to fight over Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, and the Ex-Im Bank.

The Senate's 2016 hopefuls are ever-eager to use the chamber to make their mark on the presidential race, and another must-pass train is about to leave the station.

Republican senators running for president could complicate the must-pass highway bill over the next two weeks with side issues concerning abortion, Obamacare, and the survival of the Export-Import Bank.

The senators—particularly Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas—are seeking to burnish their conservative credentials and separate themselves from a 15-strong group of GOP candidates. But in the process, they could slow down the debate over highway funding just as Congress races to pass a bill before a key July 31 deadline. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that he hopes to announce a "major, bipartisan multiyear highway bill" on Tuesday, which will put the Senate in a clash with the House's short-term, $8 billion patch.

Cruz promised last week to use "any and all procedural tools" to block any move reauthorizing the Export-Import bank, which lost its charter to provide new financing of U.S. exports at the end of June—to the jubilation of the right wing and a few figures on the Left, including Vermont's Democratic socialist senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Cruz, Paul, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida—another presidential candidate who opposes attaching Ex-Im to the transportation bill—all oppose the bank as a form of corporate welfare, although a majority of members in the House and a supermajority in the Senate continue to support it. Sen. Lindsey Graham, another GOP presidential candidate, wants to resurrect the 81-year-old bank so it can back new loans to companies like Boeing, a primary beneficiary with a strong presence in Graham's state of South Carolina.

"This Rubik's cube is going to be hard enough to solve as is," says a senior Democratic aide. "Getting Ex-Im reauthorized as part of this process is going to be important to Democrats, but we're hopeful that Senator Cruz and Senator Paul's efforts won't derail a delicate process."

Paul, meanwhile, is planning to use "all legislative vehicles at his disposal in order to ensure there is immediate action to eliminate taxpayer funding to Planned Parenthood," according to his spokesperson, Jillian Lane. His announcement last week came soon after antiabortion activists released a video of a senior Planned Parenthood official discussing how the organization helps donate tissue from aborted fetuses for scientific research. The Center for Medical Progress secretly recorded the video and charges that Planned Parenthood profits from selling aborted fetal parts, an allegation the organization rebuts. Cruz and Rubio agree with Paul that the agency shouldn't get a penny from the federal government, although only a small percentage of its services are abortions and it's banned from using federal funds to provide them.

"The continued disregard and disrespect for human life at Planned Parenthood, a partially taxpayer-funded organization, is shocking and appalling," said Paul in a statement last week. "Recent video revelations, involving potentially criminal activity, make it more obvious than ever that this organization has absolutely zero respect for the sanctity of human life and is an affront to the most basic human dignity enshrined in our founding documents. Not one more taxpayer dollar should go to Planned Parenthood and I intend to make that goal a reality."

And on Monday, Cruz announced the latest wrinkle into the highway debate: a protest over Obamacare. He intends to file amendments to fully repeal the 2010 law and to end the employer subsidies for congressional health care benefits provided by the government under it. In a statement, Cruz called the latter an "illegal" exemption and said "it's time to end the Washington favors that have gone on for far too long." Critics of the so-called Vitter amendment, named after the senator from Louisiana, note that the government is acting like most major employers in granting health care benefits to its employees.

Kevin DeGood, the director of transportation policy at the progressive Center for American Progress, told National Journal that while must-pass bills present an "attractive opportunity" for members to promote unrelated policy matters, the senators' amendments are "probably not likely" to stop a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund, as the GOP leadership can put a lid on debate likely with a "fair amount of support" on both sides of the aisle.

"The prospect of having the Treasury Department stop reimbursing states during the heart of construction season is something that would be an incredible knock against the Republicans who control both chambers in Congress," DeGood said.

Since they came in office, Cruz and Paul have used the Senate floor to great effect, both raising their profiles in 2013 through a 21-plus-hour tirade against Obamacare, which Rubio joined, and a nearly 13-hour filibuster against John Brennan, President Obama's pick to lead the CIA, which Paul later used in his presidential campaign launch video.

Earlier this year, Paul led another 10-hour effort to protest the government's spy powers authorized in the PATRIOT Act and fought for its expiration. In holding up an important bill before a crucial time-sensitive deadline, the senators could again attract loads of attention to their pet issues and, of course, to themselves.