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Export-Import Bank supporters aim for show of strength in Senate

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Business groups are turning their firepower toward the Senate in the fight over the Export-Import Bank, hoping a strong vote this month could be enough to break down resistance in the House.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) are scheduled this week to unveil legislation that would reauthorize the bank, and Democratic leaders have suggested it could reach the floor quickly.

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With the Senate bill expected to pass, Ex-Im supporters are focused on the margin of victory.

The last reauthorization of the bank charter, in 2012, passed in a 78-20 vote, despite the opposition of conservative groups that decried the agency as “crony capitalism” that distorts the free market.

Opposition from the right is even more intense this time around, but business groups are hopeful Senate Republicans will vote in large numbers for the bill, at least matching the total seen in 2012.

“We have had many good conversations with Senate offices in recent weeks,” said Christopher Wenk, the head of international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the biggest supporters of the bank.

The charter of the Ex-Im bank expires on Sept. 30, leaving Congress little time to act before its summer recess.

The reauthorization of the charter has become a divisive issue among Republicans. Tea Party groups and House conservatives are calling for the agency to be disbanded, but a number of Republicans are leery of dumping the bank, with some backing arguments that it is needed to help finance U.S. businesses overseas and protect jobs in America.

Ex-Im supporters are banking on Senate Republicans to back the Manchin-Kirk bill to provide cover for House Republicans to support reauthorization.

Perhaps the biggest prize would be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has softened his stance on Ex-Im in recent weeks after voting against the charter in 2012.

While McConnell hasn’t pledged to vote for Ex-Im this time around, he expressed support for taking up legislation.

“I think we ought to take it up,” he said last month. “The last time it was up I didn’t support it, but I don’t think that’s an argument for not bringing it up.”

Other Senate Republicans are in the process of deciding how they will vote once the bill reaches the floor.

Tea party favorite Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has already come out in support of reauthorization, though his spokesman said he wouldn’t co-sponsor the bill.

“Sen. Scott voted for reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank in the House of Representatives and will support the effort to reform and reauthorize it this year; however, he isn’t a co-sponsor,” spokesman Sean Conner told The Hill. “In a perfect world, the bank would be wound down, and we hope to see reforms that lead us down that path.”

Scott, like other Republicans, is caught between standing with the grass roots and representing the business community back home. Boeing, the top beneficiary of Ex-Im assistance, has several plants in Scott’s South Carolina.

Scott and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote to congressional leadership last month urging Congress to reauthorize the bank. Graham’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment about whether he’d co-sponsor the Manchin-Kirk legislation. 

“As the rest of the world continues to support their employers through similar efforts, simply pulling the rug out from under American businesses without a chance to adjust their business plans first is not in the best interest of the hardworking American families who power those companies’ success,” Conner said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Hill he hasn’t made up his mind about how he’ll vote on the bank.

“Ask me in a day,” he said. “Generally, I’m favorably inclined, but I want to hear the objections to it. I haven’t seen their proposal. But I’d be glad to look at it.”

Last week, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said there is bipartisan support in the Senate for reauthorizing the bank. 

“I think that if we can pass it in the Senate particularly with a good bipartisan majority ... it will put pressure on the House,” Schumer said.

Schumer said he expects the Senate to pass a bill before the August recess, providing some time for the House to act when it returns in September. 

The bank’s reauthorization has the support of several powerful business groups, including the Chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers. They say the agency’s loan support is critical for exports at businesses both large and small.

Bank supporters are ramping up their lobbying this week with visits to offices on both sides of the Capitol as lawmakers return from the July 4 recess. But the prospects for the bill remain uncertain in the House, even with some Republicans adopting the position that the bank should be reformed rather than abolished.

Incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who voted for Ex-Im reauthorization in 2012, said he plans to oppose the bank’s continuation. And while some House Republicans are mulling introducing reauthorization legislation with reforms, it’s unclear whether House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) — who staunchly opposes the bank — would take it up.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has declined to put his weight behind the bank, saying only that any legislation needs to run through the committee process.

The bank got a high-profile boost to start the week from former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who argued that the United States shouldn’t exit the loan assistance business until other countries do the same.

“Eliminating the Export-Import Bank without extracting any concessions from foreign governments would be the economic equivalent of unilateral disarmament,” he wrote in the Financial Times on Sunday.