The federal Export-Import Bank is showing some signs of life.
More than three months after it expired, House Democrats and Republican backers have united to revive the charter of the small federal agency that helps U.S. companies sell their products overseas, by underwriting financing to foreign customers. The coalition is teaming up to bypass opposition from the tea party and top GOP leaders, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the favorite to become the new Speaker.
In a rarely used congressional maneuver, supporters are gathering signatures on a so-called "discharge petition" that would allow them to force a House vote on legislation.
The bank's charter expired June 30, and it's been unable to approve new applications or fulfill its mission of helping overseas buyers purchase U.S. products like airplanes and heavy equipment, which the bank says helps sustain tens of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Supporters of the bank have been stymied by opposition from the tea party, a key committee chairman, and McCarthy. Opponents say the bank chiefly helps a few well-connected companies and subsidizes overseas businesses like foreign airlines to give them an unfair advantage over U.S. companies.
But supporters of the bank are guaranteed a floor vote if a majority of the House signs the petition. Such moves are rarely successful, but the bank enjoys support from veteran GOP lawmakers who are frustrated by the refusal of Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, an opponent of the bank, to bring the matter before his committee. Hensarling says a majority of Republicans on the GOP-controlled panel oppose the bank.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is widely regarded as supporting Ex-Im as he has in the past and doesn't appear to be doing anything to squelch the petition drive. In a little-noticed move, Boehner scheduled an unexpected House session this week that — under the arcane rules governing discharge petition efforts — promises to move the date of a House vote to Oct. 26 instead of November. His office says the reason for Monday's pro forma session was to conduct other House business.
"We have a very good chance of making this happen," Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., who's leading the petition drive, said Wednesday. "The Speaker has been very clear that he is for Ex-Im Bank. The problem is my chairman ... and he is very opposed."
Boehner said Wednesday that he still wants the Financial Services Committee to act on the issue; a panel spokesman responded that Hensarling has no intention of doing so.
The bank has sweeping support in the Senate, which voted 64-29 this summer to renew the bank as an amendment to a measure to renew highway programs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., however, opposes the bank even as he permitted this summer's test vote. So even if the House effort is successful, McConnell won't run that measure through the Senate's time-consuming procedural hoops to slate a floor vote that would send the measure to President Barack Obama.
"He's done what he said he would do," said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. "The Senate is not going to spend a week on a bill that the leader doesn't support."
McConnell's position would leave traditional GOP-friendly groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers still struggling for a way to renew it, despite wide bipartisan support in both House and Senate. Prospects aren't helped by the looming departure of Boehner at the end of the month.
Conservative critics say the bank provides too much of its credit assistance to help huge, well-connected corporations like The Boeing Company and General Electric. They say the bank finances just a minute fraction of U.S. exports and that alternative financing options are available. General Electric has already announced it will move jobs overseas, including shuttering an engine factory in Waukesha, Wisconsin, at the cost of about 350 jobs.
Establishment groups like the Chamber of Commerce say the Ex-Im Bank provides critical loans and loan guarantees to help overseas buyers purchase U.S. products and support tens of thousands of jobs. And they say killing the bank would put U.S. businesses at a disadvantage with foreign firms that benefit from export assistance from their own governments.