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Lawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank

Lawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank
© Aaron Schwartz, Stefani Reynolds, Greg Nash

Lawmakers are struggling to strike a bipartisan deal to reboot the Export-Import Bank as impeachment and the 2020 election threaten to derail a fleeting window for the major reform bill.

The White House and Congress were poised to pass a long-term extension and expansion of the Ex-Im Bank, sparking optimism among manufacturers battered by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote MORE’s trade conflicts. 

But the collapse of a bipartisan House deal on an institution that provides loans to the country's exporters has thrown its future into doubt as the Senate searches for its own solution.

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Senators are seeking a bill that can balance widespread support for Ex-Im’s mission with concerns from conservative skeptical of the bank as subsidizing companies and distorting the free market.

Those divides extend to Trump’s fractious economic team, where free-market advocates and staunch trade protectionists are jockeying for the president’s ear. 

Congress will likely keep Ex-Im open through an extension of its charter as impeachment proceedings and negotiations to avoid a shutdown dominate the rest of the year. That could leave mere weeks for senators to produce a viable bill in early 2020 before campaign season derails its efforts.

“We obviously have not been able to get to where we can get legislation that would not be filibustered on the floor,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoBarrett says she did not strike down ObamaCare in moot court case GOP Sen. Thom Tillis tests positive for coronavirus 22 GOP attorneys general urge Congress to confirm Barrett as Supreme Court justice MORE (R-Idaho) told The Hill last week.

“It's just a tenuous process of trying to find a way forward where we can move without having to use up a week's worth of floor time.”

GOP divisions over Ex-Im have exasperated Republican legislative leadership for five years. While Ex-Im had enjoyed wide bipartisan support since it was established in 1934, a conservative crusade shuttered the bank for nine months in 2015 and kept its board largely empty until May.

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Ex-Im appeared ripe for a reboot after the 2018 retirement of Rep. Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingLawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank House passes Ex-Im Bank reboot bill opposed by White House, McConnell Has Congress lost the ability or the will to pass a unanimous bipartisan small business bill? MORE (R-Texas), the former House Financial Services Committee chairman who helped lead the 2015 effort to defund the bank.

His heir to the gavel, Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersCompanies start responding to pressure to bolster minority representation Democratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Safeguarding US elections by sanctioning Russian sovereign debt MORE (D-Calif.), and ranking Republican Rep. Patrick McHenryPatrick Timothy McHenryMcCarthy: 'I would think I already have the votes' to remain as House GOP leader Ex-RNC, Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy charged in covert lobbying scheme Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future MORE (N.C.) began negotiations on an Ex-Im reboot soon after taking their new roles.

Waters and McHenry unveiled a bipartisan bill to extend Ex-Im’s charter for 10 years, insulate the bank from defunding efforts, and limit its ability to finance exports to Chinese firms.

The bill was hailed by some as a major victory over the bank’s powerful critics among conservative political non-profits, including Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity.

“Even back in our day we would have thought, ‘Hey, that's a pretty good deal,’” said Stephen Myrow, a senior vice president at Ex-Im from 2006 to 2008. “I could see why those who oppose Ex-Im balked.”

While GOP members of the Financial Services panel expressed openness to the bipartisan deal, objections from Ex-Im’s fiercest Democratic allies forced Waters to pull her bill with McHenry before a markup.

A new measure from just Waters with fewer restrictions on lending to Chinese state-owned firms, rewritten to soothe Democratic concerns, passed the House earlier this month with little Republican support and a veto threat from the White House

“The Administration is committed to the long-term reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank,” said the White House budget office. “[The House bill], however, does not represent the type of bipartisan, bicameral approach needed to appropriately accomplish that goal.”

Now, it’s up to Crapo and Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBrown says Biden's first moves as president should be COVID relief, voting rights Senators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day MORE (D-Ohio), ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, to find a deal that will bridge divides between their parties and among the GOP. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote Democrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg MORE (R-Ky.) helped secure a deal to reopen Ex-Im in 2015 after the conservative insurrection, but is unlikely to take up a more ambitious bill without ample GOP support. 

“The problem is this corporate welfare versus export promotion fight that permeates basically all the key parts of government here,” said Myrow, now a managing partner at Beacon Policy Advisors, a Washington, D.C. policy analysis firm.

Conservative Republicans denounce Ex-Im as the epitome of crony capitalism, propping up U.S. exporters with corporate welfare by financing deals that wouldn’t be possible without government support. 

But the party’s moderate wing finds common cause with Trump and his protectionist advisors, insisting the U.S. must protect its exports from China’s far greater subsidies.

“Traditional conservatives,” will argue that “if you can't get these deals in the private sector, they don't deserve to get done,” Myrow said. “And the other side will say, ‘but that's the equivalent of unilateral nuclear disarmament, not the reality of the world.’”

While Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence won't preside over Barrett's final confirmation vote Trump is cruising for a bruising Biden to campaign in Iowa for first time since winning nomination MORE and like-minded officials are critics of Ex-Im, protectionists such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossIt's time to reckon with space junk Census Bureau to hold count through end of October Judge begins contempt proceedings for Wilbur Ross over allegedly defying census order MORE and trade advisor Peter Navarro support the bank as another weapon in the trade war against China.

Brown said Wednesday that conflicting views among Trump’s officials have derailed negotiations with Crapo, saying the White House “continues to undermine us” and is “betraying the efforts of job creators.”

“They're for it, they pull it away, Pence blocks it, or somebody else walks in,” Brown continued. 

“I mean, they're saying the right things, but why believe them when they lied so many times.”

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But Crapo insisted that the White House has been nothing but supportive as Republicans seek to balance the concerns within their ranks. 

“No matter which way we turn, there are some who want to expand and some who want to reform,” Crapo said. “And no matter which of those alternatives we choose, it creates the potential the filibuster on the floor.”

Updated 3:16 p.m.