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Senate passes two highway bills, sets the stage for long-term plan

U.S. Capitol
Phil Roeder | Flickr

(Updated 1:45 p.m. with vote) 

The Senate voted on two different highway bills today. The first vote, which passed, was to approve its own six-year plan with three years of funding and language re-authorizing the now closed Export-Import Bank. The second bill is the House-passed, three-month extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which keeps federal road dollars flowing to the states. The Senate approved it 91-4.

Lawmakers in both chambers have pledged to work on a multi-year plan when they return from their August break.

Vets, business and Obamacare

The House bill also includes $3.4 billion to help the Department of Veterans Affairs to keep medical facilities open. It includes a provision that gives veterans the ability to seek medical care at private facilities closer to home and creates incentives for small businesses to hire veterans by exempting veterans as employees from provisions of the Affordable Care Act, because they already have insurance through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The exemption means that small businesses will not have to count the veterans toward thresholds under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Two area Republican lawmakers pushed the Hire More Heroes legislation included in the House bill, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R- Mo., and Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville. “The Hire More Heroes Act is a bill that came from veterans to help veterans,” Davis said in a statement released after the House gave its final approval on the package. “Our economy is still struggling to recover and Obamacare is listed by many small businesses as the number one reason they’re holding off hiring additional employees.” He said that this change “will encourage businesses to hire more of our nation’s veterans.”

Ex-Im Bank

Even though the House announced early in the week that it would not consider the Senate highway bill, that chamber has continued to work on the plan, which includes a provision to revitalize the Ex-Im Bank. All four U.S. senators from Missouri and Illinois back the bank provision. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., sponsored the amendment that won overwhelming support among senators earlier this week. The bank is opposed mostly by tea party Republicans, who label it “corporate welfare” and “cronyism” and say it “picks the winners” in business dealings that should be left to the private sector.

The bank’s inclusion in the Senate bill gives backers hope that when it comes time for the two chambers to work out their differences on a multi-year highway bill, that the Ex-Im Bank will be part of the equation. The bank’s charter expired in June. “The only thing that has to happen to save Ex-Im is John Boehner … the House has to put it on the floor for a vote … it will pass,” says U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

The effort to revitalize Ex-Im has created the somewhat unusual alliance of Democrats and business groups. McCaskill is quick to point out that traditional Republican allies in business, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are finding significant support from Democrats on Capitol Hill. “By the way, the Chamber of Commerce didn’t help me get elected. They certainly helped all the Republicans get elected,” McCaskill said as she called on others in the state’s delegation in the House to help with Ex-Im. “We have members of leadership in our congressional delegation, I hope they plead with John Boehner” to bring Ex-Im< to a vote.

The House completed its work Wednesday and has begun a five-week break. The Senate is scheduled to be in session for another week before leaving Washington.

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