It's On! Cruz Takes On McConnell in the Senate
Policy + Politics

It's On! Cruz Takes On McConnell in the Senate

© CHRIS KEANE / Reuters

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is cracking the whip as he tries to get nearly $50 billion of new spending authority for highway and bridge projects passed by the end of the week.

Related: Congress Uses Accounting Gimmicks to Fund Highway Bill

But the bipartisan measure is quickly turning into the bill from hell for the Republicans. McConnell’s maneuvering over amendments to the bill prompted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to repeatedly call him a liar on the Senate floor last Friday, and Cruz continued to defend his remarks during an extraordinary Sunday session of the Senate.

McConnell has infuriated Cruz and other conservatives for cutting deals with Democrats, establishment Republicans and business interests in order to pass highway legislation to replenish the highway trust fund.

One of those deals was an agreement to allow a vote on an amendment to the highway bill restoring authority for the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday in favor of an amendment to resuscitate the bank, which faces extinction after its charter expired June 30.

Related: Republican White House Hopeful Cruz Calls McConnell a Liar

Many conservatives and groups -- including the Heritage Foundation’s political action committee, the Club for Growth and Charles G. and David H. Koch’s Freedom Partners organization -- strongly oppose the bank and view the program as a costly sop to major U.S. multinational corporations such as Boeing and General Electric.

In an attempt to placate some conservatives, McConnell also allowed a vote on a second amendment to the highway bill – this one giving conservatives yet another opportunity to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Not surprisingly, the amendment failed in the face of a Democratic filibuster, just as it has gone down nearly three dozen other times in the past.

The dual setbacks for conservatives capped a bitter and politically charged week in the Senate.

Related: Why Congress Can’t Make a Deal on Highway Spending

Cruz, who is trailing in the polls in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, broke with Senate rules and decorum on Friday by lashing out at McConnell in a fiery floor speech. He accused McConnell of lying to his colleagues about whether he would allow the vote on resurrecting the export credit agency.

Cruz and other conservatives suspected that McConnell had agreed to the vote in return for Republican and Democratic support in passing President Obama’s fast-track Pacific Rim trade legislation June 24., an important initiative that McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) both supported.

“I cannot believe he would tell a flat-out lie,” Cruz said of McConnell, who he said had promised him there was no deal to bring the Export-Import bank up for a vote. However, McConnell had been quite clear for weeks that it was likely he would bring up the bank reauthorization as part of deliberations over a new highway bill.

“We know now that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment, that he is willing to say things that he knows are false,” Cruz said in a remarkable diatribe on the floor that stunned many of his colleagues.

Related: Why the Export-Impact Bank Should Be Saved

McConnell, who remained silent for a couple of days, on Sunday defended his actions setting up the vote, even though he opposes renewing the bank’s authority, according to Roll Call. And other senior Republicans rebuked Cruz on the floor even as Cruz came to the floor to defend his comments.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) spoke at length about the importance of senators treating each other with respect and not impugning their integrity. Without specifically calling out Cruz by name, he suggested that much of what has happened on the Senate floor stemmed from grandstanding by Cruz and other presidential aspirants who are trying to raise money and move up in the polls.

“Most egregiously, Mr. President, the Senate floor has even become a place where Senators have singled out colleagues by name to attack them in personal terms and to impugn their character—in blatant disregard of Senate rules, which plainly prohibit such conduct,” Hatch said.

Cruz immediately responded, according to Roll Call, noting that “speaking the truth” is “entirely consistent with civility.”

Related: Ted Cruz Throws Himself a Pity Party

Despite the conservatives’ setbacks yesterday, Cruz and others are vowing other showdowns this week, including a measure related to the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. It’s far from clear whether McConnell will be able to prevail in passing major highway legislation before the end of the week.

Last Tuesday, McConnell offered a bipartisan plan with Democrat Barbara Boxer (CA) to spend nearly $50 billion over the next three years to replenish the highway trust fund. The deal would finance highways, bridges and other infrastructure for the next three years while putting the onus on the next Congress to come up with funding for an additional three years.

Congressional Budget Office Director Keith Hall said in a letter to McConnell that the deal would make transfers to the Highway Trust Fund totaling $46.3 billion over the next three years, with all but $300 million coming from the general fund, according to a report by Morning Consult. However, the plan would use a hodgepodge of budget gimmicks and maneuvers to keep federal funds flowing to state and local governments to address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

The House recently approved a modest five-month extension of the existing highway authority to give members more time to craft a long-term replacement.