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Export-Import Bank could be revived via highway funding bill

Export-Import Bank could be revived via highway funding bill
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would allow bank advocates to include a five-year reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank on a highway funding bill that must pass by the end of the month. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

House Republican leaders succeeded last month in their quest to shut down a federal agency that helps U.S. companies sell their goods overseas, but a majority in Congress may soon have the last word.

A path to reviving the Export-Import Bank has emerged in Congress, and the agency, which has the strong backing of business groups, could be providing assistance again within weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would allow bank advocates to include a five-year reauthorization of the agency on a highway funding bill that must pass by the end of the month.

And there's enough support from Democrats and Republicans that such an amendment would pass, even if a leading conservative, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), mounts a promised filibuster.

"The longer we wait on Ex-Im reauthorization, the further American manufacturers fall behind the eight ball in the global economy," said Linda Dempsey, vice president for international economic affairs at the National Assn. of Manufacturers.

The Obama administration and majorities in the Senate and House want to keep the bank operating, noting that dozens of other countries have similar agencies helping their companies compete against U.S. firms.

The bank provided $20.5 billion in loans and other assistance last year to finance $27.5 billion worth of U.S. exports. Taxpayers provide no money to the bank, which is funded by interest and fees and sent $675 million in profits to the U.S. Treasury last year.

Strong opposition from some key House leaders last month prevented a vote on extending the bank's charter before it expired June 30.

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House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and other conservatives have called the bank's aid corporate welfare. They said large corporations, particularly Boeing Co., are the main beneficiaries and note that the government is on the hook for any losses the bank can't cover on about $122 billion in outstanding assistance.

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"The taxpayers are risking their dollars in order to benefit foreign countries and to benefit giant corporations," Cruz said this week.

But attaching a reauthorization to the highway bill could overcome that opposition.

"We have the recipe to get this reauthorization passed: broad bipartisan support in both chambers and a legislative vehicle to bring Ex-Im to a vote," Dempsey said. "What we need now is for Congress to put politics aside and get to work on this important issue."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a bank supporter, said she anticipated that the Senate would add a reauthorization amendment to the highway bill and send it back to the House.

"We look forward to that happening," she said.

In that case, House Republican leaders would be in a bind.

With about 190 Democrats and 60 Republicans in the House already publicly supporting bills to reauthorize the bank, opponents would be unlikely to generate enough votes to remove the reauthorization from the highway bill.

The only way House leaders could prevent the bank's revival would be to allow the federal Highway Trust Fund to run out of money on July 31, which would derail projects around the country. The House showed its support for highway funding on Wednesday by overwhelmingly approving a short-term extension into December.

But opponents of the bank aren't giving up.

"I am willing to use any and all procedural tools to stop this corporate welfare, this corruption, from being propagated," Cruz said.

But a procedural vote last month in the Senate generated 65 votes in favor of a bipartisan bank reauthorization bill. That's enough votes to overcome a filibuster.

"Congress is hurting America's competitiveness by letting the Export-Import Bank expire, yet it's all preventable," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a key sponsor of the expected reauthorization measure.

The amendment makes some key changes to the way the bank operates to try to address concerns of some conservatives. The changes include reducing the bank's overall lending cap to $135 billion from $140 billion and increasing the percentage of aid provided to small businesses to 25% from 20%.

Those changes aren't enough for many conservatives.

Without reauthorization of its charter, the bank can continue to provide assistance for deals it already had committed to fund, but it can offer no new aid. The bank said it had about 195 pending bank transactions, totaling more than $9.1 billion in assistance, that were put on hold by the lapse of its charter.

As the bank's portfolio shrinks over time, it would shut down. Conservatives don't want to stop that process now that it has started.

The pressure is on McConnell to prevent a bank reauthorization amendment from being added to the highway bill and on House leaders to block the bill if he doesn't, said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative group that opposes the bank.

"You could make a really credible case that the Senate attaching Ex-Im to the highway bill grinds the entire highway [funding] process to a halt," he said. "If folks are truly concerned about getting highway authorization and funding fixed, they have every incentive to keep Ex-Im off of it."

On Thursday, McCarthy would not say whether the House would take up a highway bill that contained reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. He advised the Senate to pass the House highway bill without any additional measures attached.

His comments on the House floor came when he was pressed on the issue by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who said he expected the Senate to attach the bank reauthorization to the highway bill.

"There is no doubt the Export-Import Bank has the votes to pass this House and the Senate, and yet we fiddle while jobs are being burned," Hoyer said.

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