WASHINGTON — A bipartisan band of lawmakers on the verge of advancing a top business priority saved a ceremonial honor for one of the effort's surprising leaders: Rep. Maxine Waters.
The Los Angeles Democrat, long a critic of corporate America, became the 218th and deciding vote to wrest control from conservative GOP leaders of a measure to revive the controversial federal Export-Import Bank, which helps U.S. companies sell their products abroad.
The bank's closure in July was hailed by conservatives as a victory against corporate welfare. But leading trade groups and major exporters, such as Boeing Co. and General Electric Co., said the loss of the bank's assistance was a blow to U.S. global competitiveness.
House Republican leaders had blocked attempts to reauthorize the bank's charter. But 218 signatures on a rarely successful discharge petition would trigger an automatic vote to renew the charter through the 2019 fiscal year.
"Congratulations, Maxine Waters, on being 218," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) declared at a news conference in October.
Waters, 77, has become an unlikely champion of the business community on several key issues since taking the high-profile position as the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee.
In the past, the outspoken liberal has called Wall Street bankers gangsters, railed against executive pay and threatened to nationalize oil companies. During nearly 25 years in the House, Waters has voted with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just 22% of the time — the second-lowest score of any sitting member.
But lawmakers and lobbyists said Waters played a pivotal role not just in pushing the bank's recent reauthorization through the House, but in passing a major flood insurance bill last year -- both over the objections of the committee's powerful chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). On top of that, Waters helped advance a six-year extension of terrorism insurance that was enacted this year.
FOR THE RECORD:
4:24 p.m.: A previous version of this article said a terrorism insurance bill advanced over the objections of Rep. Jeb Hensarling. Hensarling initially wanted broader changes to the program and a shorter extension, but negotiated a compromise with the Senate and supported the bill that was enacted.
"I think she saw a potential outreach opportunity to the business community on all three issues, and to her credit, she seized the opportunity," said Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist at the Chamber of Commerce.
Given her past positions, Waters' support for the bank helped convince other lawmakers to follow, said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), another leader in the bank fight.
"The fact she was so committed to this, so outspoken, so energetic, it was hard for Republicans to say this is a sellout to big business," he said. "Nobody believes Maxine Waters is a sellout to big business."
Waters said some people incorrectly think that "if you're a progressive and you're concerned about poor people and care about jobs, that you don't care about business."
"I truly want our country to be competitive," she said, noting that she now has a "new and better understanding" of the bank.
In 2002, Waters voted against reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, complaining that it "has a history of providing assistance to companies that have been exporting American jobs and hiring cheap foreign labor." She specifically criticized GE.
That vote came during the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. This time, with President Obama, a fellow Democrat, pushing strongly for the bank's reauthorization, Waters was on the opposite side of the issue.
She said she reassessed the bank's work, particularly in assisting Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the Hawthorne company known as SpaceX, and other aerospace firms in her district.
"There were suppliers benefiting from Ex-Im support for Boeing and small- and medium-sized exporters that were directly supported by Ex-Im Bank," Waters said.
Last year, the bank said it provided $108 million in loans and other assistance to help support $237 million in exports from companies in Waters' district, which stretches from Inglewood south through Hawthorne, Torrance and Carson.
But Waters' conversion appears political to Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a leading bank critic.
"The small-business angle just doesn't justify her unconditional support for Ex-Im because, on average, less than 20% of the banks' activity benefits small businesses," De Rugy said.
Nationwide, the bank provided $20.5 billion last year to finance $27.5 billion in exports. Taxpayers provide no money to the bank, which is funded by interest and fees and which sent $675 million in profits to the Treasury last year. But the government is on the hook for any losses the bank can't cover on about $112 billion in outstanding assistance.
The reauthorization that Waters helped push makes changes to the bank's operations to address concerns of opponents. 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%.
The legislation now is attached to a highway spending measure that is expected to get final clearance from Congress within days.
For more than a year, Waters used her committee position to highlight businesses that benefited from the bank's assistance and helped organize a coalition of Democrats and business-friendly Republicans to overcome strong opposition by House GOP leaders.
Waters has made her name in Washington as a fiery advocate for minorities and liberal causes, such as worker rights, since arriving in 1991.
In 2009, the House Ethics Committee began investigating allegations that she improperly helped a bank, in which her husband owned stock, receive bailout money during the financial crisis.
Three years later, the committee unanimously determined that Waters did not break any rules. The decision cleared the way for her to become the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, replacing retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). It's her most prominent position in Washington since chairing the Congressional Black Caucus in 1997-99.
Since taking the new post in 2013, she's received more campaign contributions from insurers, bankers and people in other industries affected by policies under the panel's jurisdiction, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Among the contributions were her first two, totaling $16,000, from the political action committee for Boeing, the chief beneficiary of Export-Import Bank assistance.
Waters, however, isn't a big fundraiser and has been reelected easily from her Los Angeles district. Her actions on business issues appear driven by her own politics and role as a top House Democrat working to advance Obama administration priorities.
She has been the chief defender in the House of new regulations under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which Republicans have been trying to weaken. The Chamber of Commerce has been one of the chief critics of many provisions of the law.
"I just will not and cannot forget the crisis we went through, and know we have to have reform and consumer protection," she said. "We won't agree on many of those issues."
The chamber invited Waters to give a speech to the group in 2013. And Josten thinks her work on the Ex-Im Bank will lead to a better relationship with her.
Still, he noted that a lawmaker must vote with the chamber at least 70% of the time to be considered for an endorsement, and by that measure, "she's got a ways to go."