Obama, Clinton pitch Ex-Im at summit

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President announces $3B pledge to support exports to sub-Saharan Africa

By Kevin Cirilli

Supporters of the Export-Import Bank used the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit on Tuesday to rally support for its re-authorization.

President Obama, former President Clinton and other U.S. officials and business leaders touted the 80-year-old bank as an economic tool that can help African countries while supporting U.S. jobs.

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Obama used his first address at the three-day Washington summit, where up to 50 African heads-of-state were expected, to announce that Ex-Im had pledged $3 billion in financing to support U.S. exports to sub-Saharan Africa for the next two fiscal years.

Ex-Im exposure in Africa has soared in recent years to an all-time high of $6.6 billion — $5.8 billion of which is concentrated in the sub-Sarahan region, according to Ex-Im estimates.

Obama and Clinton sought to tie their party to business groups that back Ex-Im, and to portray Republicans as beholden to the Tea Party.

“I would be remiss if I did not add that House Republicans can help by re-authorizing the Export-Import Bank — that is the right thing to do,” Obama said during his speech, which focused on ways the U.S. could help Africa’s development and boost U.S. jobs at the same time.

“We need to get that re-authorized. And you business leaders can help make clear that it is critical to U.S. business,” Obama said.

Clinton, who discussed Ex-Im with General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt at one event on Tuesday, called criticism of the bank “ridiculous.”

“I’ve heard more ridiculous things said about the Ex-Im bank in the last six months than I have in my adult life,” Clinton said while moderating a panel during Tuesday’s business forum.

Tea Party groups have said the bank is little more than “crony capitalism” designed to help companies like Boeing and General Electric. They quickly fired back at Obama and Clinton.

“Only in Washington could a conference on international development devolve into a blatant pitch for corporate welfare,” griped Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, a top Tea Party group opposing the bank’s re-authorization.

“If companies really believe economic opportunity is prevalent, they should be willing to take on the risk without asking taxpayers to put ‘some skin in the game,’” said Holler.

The bank’s charter is set to expire on Sept. 30, and Republicans are badly divided over whether to extend it.

Most Democrats support re-authorization, but the issue has pit Tea Partyers and fiscal conservatives against more centrist Republicans, who are backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Although Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) have introduced a bipartisan five-year re-authorization bill, there’s no serious House companion legislation.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) is one of the bank’s most ardent critics. Even if the House were to put up a bill, Hensarling hasn’t said whether he’ll take it up. Hensarling’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

If a legislative fix isn’t feasible, most expect Ex-Im will be re-authorized through a short-term budget agreement that’s needed to fund the government — and keep it open. But that’s far from a sure thing.

Immelt and other business leaders along with advocates for African development joined Clinton and Obama is pressing for Ex-Im’s re-authorization.

“The fact that we have to sit here and argue for it, I think, is just wrong,” Immelt said. “More than anything else, Mr. President, is that it shows the U.S. cares. It speaks to the country’s interest in a region, it’s a competitive weapon and it creates jobs here — lots of jobs, and it creates jobs in the countries we go to.”

“Don’t throw the away the baby with the bath water,” urged African business leader Mo Ibrahim, founder and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

Obama has previously advocated for Ex-Im re-authorization, most recently in an interview with The Economist published earlier this week, when he said he found it “strange” that Ex-Im had become a Tea Party target.

“There is no doubt that a thread has emerged in the Republican Party of anti-globalization that runs contrary to the party’s traditional support for free trade,” Obama told The Economist.

But campaigning for president in 2008, Obama dubbed the bank “little more than a fund for corporate welfare.”