A bipartisan group of House lawmakers joined Friday to force a vote in the coming weeks to reopen the Export-Import Bank, whose charter expired this summer because of opposition from key congressional leaders.
The move is a victory for supporters of the 81-year-old bank, which helps U.S. companies export their goods.
But even if a reauthorization bill passes the House, expected as early as Oct. 26, its fate in the Senate remains unclear.
Still, House members who have been working to save the bank said Friday they were optimistic they would succeed.
"We're going to help keep those jobs in our districts and across this country that have been generated because of the support of the Ex-Im Bank," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a leading bank supporter.
Bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate want to reopen the bank, which has strong support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other leading business groups.
But key House Republicans have prevented votes, calling the bank a dispenser of corporate welfare.
The issue has bitterly divided Republicans, emblematic of the divisions that forced House Speaker John Boehner to resign and led the front-runner to replace him, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, to suddenly withdraw this week.
The bank's charter expired on June 30 and it's been unable to offer any new export assistance since then.
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.
As efforts to reopen the bank stalled, General Electric Co. and other firms said they were moving manufacturing jobs overseas to tap into export assistance in those countries.
McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who opposes the bank's reauthorization, controls which bills get a vote on the House floor. But a so-called discharge petition with at least 218 signatures -- a majority of House members -- forces a floor vote.
In recent weeks, bank supporters circulated a petition to force a vote on a bill reauthorizing the agency for five years. As of Friday, 42 House Republicans had bucked their party's leaders and joined with 176 Democrats to sign the petition.
"We refuse to look any more hardworking Americans in the eye and say, 'You lost your job because Congress refused to hold a vote.' This cannot wait any longer," said a joint statement from Reps. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Chris Collins (R-N.Y.)
They have led the Republican effort in the House to reauthorize the bank. They formed an unusual alliance with Democrats.
"We have broken through the wall of obstruction in the Congress," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), declared Friday at a celebratory news conference.
But the fight won't be over when the House passes the bill.
The Senate voted 64-29 in July to attach an identical bank reauthorization bill to highway funding legislation. The tally means there is enough support in the Senate to overcome a filibuster by opponents.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, opposes the bank's reauthorization.
Getting the House bill to the Senate floor in the face of such opposition would require about a week of legislative time and McConnell doesn't plan to bring it up, said his spokesman, Don Stewart.
"The Senate is not going to spend a week on a bill that the leader doesn't support," Stewart said.
Bank backers predicted they'd prevail.
"One person cannot stop the momentum of the majority," said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.)
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who led the House opposition to the bank, criticized Republicans who joined with Democrats to force a vote.
"Signing a discharge petition puts the minority in charge and effectively makes Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House," he said. "At a time when our Republican conference is divided, this will divide it even further."