It looked so easy when the bipartisan JOBS Act cleared the Senate (73-26) and the House (380-41) and was signed into law by President Obama last week. But passage of a strong bill wasn’t a snap. Only the maneuvering of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell kept the measure from being delayed, angrily debated, and then watered down.

McConnell is extremely skillful in recruiting enough Republican votes to use the filibuster effectively to shape or kill legislation. But this time it looked like he would fail when Democrats sought to attach reauthorization of the Export-Import bank to the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) bill, a measure designed to help entrepreneurs raise money for their startups.

This may sound like unimportant procedural stuff. And yes, it was procedural. But unimportant? Not at all.

Though it wasn’t obvious, there was a good reason to keep the bank out of the JOBS Act. Since the bank’s extension wasn’t in the House version of the bill, Senate inclusion would necessitate a House-Senate conference to iron out the difference. And Democrats were ready to exploit the conference to weaken the bill. So there was plenty at stake.

House Republicans were mainly responsible for the JOBS Act in the first place. They had a passed four smaller measures, which were packaged in a single bill by House majority leader Eric Cantor. And they were sufficiently non-controversial that President Obama endorsed the JOBS Act even before it was voted on in the House.

The expectation in the Senate was that 65-70 members would vote for cloture, killing the filibuster led by McConnell aimed at blocking the addition of the bank. But the efforts of McConnell and his allies appeared to be doomed. Making things all the more discouraging, two leading GOP senators, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, were co-sponsors of a separate bill to extend the life of the Export-Import bank.

But at a Senate Republican lunch two weeks ago, McConnell argued strenuously against adding the bank. And just before the issue came to a vote, McConnell spoke on the Senate floor. By adding the bank, “we only delay passage of the passage of this bipartisan JOBS bill, and we send it back to the House, and we don’t know how they feel about the Ex-Im extension,” he said. In fact, Cantor is a critic of the bank.

So what happened? McConnell surprised everyone by rounding up 44 Republicans to back a filibuster against the bank’s addition, including Shelby and Graham. Democrats fell five short of the 60 votes required to keep the Export-Import issue alive. Only three Republicans defected – Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins of Maine, and Dean Heller of Nevada.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid was unhappy. He wanted to deal with the bank swiftly and without a real debate. And he was among those Democrats eager to weaken the bill, which would have pleased labor and liberal groups.

“So go ahead, my friends,” he said before the cloture vote. “You picked a fight where it is not a necessary fight, but you may be surprised how this winds up. I will say no more.”

Reid, it turned out, was the one to be surprised.

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