The Export-Import Bank, in danger of closing at the end of the month because of strong conservative opposition, neared a temporary reprieve Tuesday as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he was working with a leading critic of the bank on a short-term extension of its charter.
Boehner told reporters that he and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who has been rallying the opposition to the 80-year-old agency, were working on a way to reauthorize the bank's charter before it expires on Sept. 30.
"He thinks that a temporary extension of the Export-Import Bank is in order," Boehner said. The speaker's comments signaled a major shift in the battle over the fate of the bank, which provides loans and other assistance to foreign buyers of U.S. products.
Boehner stopped short of saying the House would pass such a measure.
But there is strong Democratic support for the bank as well as some support from Republicans, which make a temporary reauthorization likely to pass if Boehner allows it to come to a vote.
The Senate is expected to approve such a measure.
Reauthorization of the bank could be included in a bill to fund the federal government after the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, Boehner said. Such a bill must be passed to avoid another government shutdown.
Lawmakers could extend the charter until after the November elections to allow for time to draft changes to the bank's rules of operation.
Hensarling and other conservative critics want to shut down the bank. They have said the export assistance is corporate welfare, noting that the bulk of the aid goes to large multinational companies such as Boeing Co.
The effort gained a boost when new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said this summer that he favored closing the bank.
Hensarling said recently that a short-term reauthorization was not something he necessarily favored, but it might be needed if some of his colleagues needed more time to consider the issue.
"I don't know where it stands at the moment," Hensarling told reporters Tuesday as he left the Republicans' weekly conference meeting.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who plans to post details soon of a short-term spending bill that could go before the full House by week's end, declined to say whether a Export-Import Bank extension would be included.
But he said he wanted to keep the spending bill "as clean as we can, because the object here is to prevent a shutdown."
The Obama administration, most congressional Democrats and leading business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are lobbying hard to save the bank.
They say it is crucial to U.S. competitiveness, noting that about 60 other countries offer similar export assistance to their companies.
The bank receives no taxpayer funding, paying for its operations through interest and fees on its assistance. Last year it sent a record $1.1 billion in profit to the Treasury.
"Without the Export-Import Bank, it will pretty much kill us," said Don Nelson, president of ProGauge Technologies Inc. in Bakersfield.
The company makes equipment for the oil industry and depends on bank assistance to export to Oman and other Middle Eastern countries, Nelson said.
Nelson was in Washington on Tuesday along with executives from four other exporters, organized by the National Assn. of Manufacturers, to lobby lawmakers for a long-term extension of the bank's charter.
Nelson said he had a meeting scheduled Wednesday with McCarthy, who is his congressman.
"I honestly believe he was not familiar how many companies in his district use Ex-Im Bank," Nelson said.
ProGauge has about 100 employees and does about $40 million in sales each year. Nearly two-thirds of the business is in exports to customers in countries that private U.S. banks will not assist, he said.
"If Ex-Im goes away, I see our export business dying," Nelson said. "I don't see a backup plan."
But opposition to the bank is strong as well.
Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth, two influential conservative groups, wrote to McCarthy on Monday urging him to "stand strong" and let the bank's charter expire.
"In the past several months, the bank and the private corporations it benefits have launched an all-out public relations campaign to repair the bank's image," the letter said.
"This simply confirms what we have said all along — the Export-Import Bank is a crony-capitalist slush fund benefiting mainly politically connected companies that receive its subsidies," it said.
Heritage Action warned lawmakers that it would include any vote on the bank's reauthorization in the group's annual congressional scorecard.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that Democrats wanted to see the bank reauthorized for at least five years.