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Congress Weighs Options Before Ex-Im Bank Expires

Congress is on course to let the Export-Import Bank expire at the end of this month, but it’s unlikely to mean the ultimate demise of the 81-year-old credit financing agency.

House and Senate backers of the bank say there are no obvious options for avoiding a lapse in authorization in about two weeks, given limited floor time in both chambers and conservative opposition in the House. But they also say they expect Congress will find a way to move a long-term extension before leaving for the August recess.

Supporters expect the business community to continue its heavy push for extending the bank, which provided more than $20 billion in loans, guarantees and other financing arrangements to U.S. exporters in fiscal 2014. They also note a recent test vote in the Senate on the bank’s fate showed 65 votes in favor, a filibuster-proof majority.

“Those that want to shut down the bank are in the minority,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading supporter of the financing agency. He expects Congress to attach the bank renewal to must-pass legislation to extend the authorization for highway and transit programs that runs out at the end of July.

Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, the leading opponent of renewing the Ex-Im Bank, has stayed away from predictions, but he has repeatedly told lawmakers that if they do nothing, the agency will have to begin winding down its operations in July. He sees the fight over the bank as part of a larger ideological battle within the GOP, with tea party Republicans in both chambers resisting pressure to renew the bank.

“What is it that our party stands for?” Hensarling asked. “Do we stand for free enterprise interests and its hope, its fairness and its opportunity? Or do we stand for business interests? Because those two are not identical.”

Bank President Fred Hochberg, who has already testified before congressional committees five times since January, said last week he’s not “unrealistic” that time is tight for an extension this month, but said he remains “fully confident” that a longtime reauthorization will eventually be signed into law. He said his bank still has annual funding that would allow it to keep its 450 employees in place through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, even if lawmakers do not extend it.

Congress essentially has three options on the bank:

Do nothing and the bank expires at the end of June. It could not make any more loans. However, it still would need to keep some operations intact to manage its current financing portfolio that stretches over a decade. Conservatives favor this approach, arguing the bank chiefly benefits multinational companies, such as General Electric and Boeing, that could handle the financing themselves.

Allow the bank to briefly lapse, but then find a way to extend it before the August recess. Backers of the bank and the business community favor this approach and believe it is the most likely outcome due to a tight Senate floor schedule and reluctance in the House to call up a stand-alone reauthorization bill. The betting is on a long-term reauthorization with few changes in bank operations, something that could be added to a must-pass bill, such as highway funding legislation needed by the end of July.

Allow the bank to lapse and then come up with a reauthorization package that would overhaul the bank to win over conservative critics. Multiple bills have been introduced to change the bank’s operations, but there’s not yet consensus on the approach. Possible changes could include increasing small business lending requirements, reducing the bank’s loan lending authority and requiring it to maintain deeper reserves to appease critics who fear the bank would be responsible for outstanding loans should the markets collapse.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, who so far has declined to mark up legislation extending the bank, has opposed renewing the agency without major operational changes.

“If they don’t want to be reformed, then they should lapse,” said Shelby, who added that the bank’s support shows “the lobbying power of powerful interests.”

Hochberg has not ruled out overhauling the bank in exchange for an extension, noting all of the legislative proposals he has seen for a reauthorization have some “reform” provisions in them. He declined to single out any that he favors, but said the bank has followed through on more than a dozen changes Congress required when reauthorizing it in 2012.

Hochberg also said in the past week he has met with Hensarling and spoken over the phone with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is also against a renewal. He declined to offer specifics of those discussions, but said his aim was to help “narrow their differences” and dispel misconceptions by opponents who say the bank is tantamount to corporate welfare.

“I am going to leave the legislative strategy and tactics to those on the Hill,” he added.

Oklahoma Republican Frank D. Lucas, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee who backs renewing the bank, said he’s worried the philosophical fight within the GOP over the bank has taken the focus off needed changes.

“Fourteen days, 14 weeks, 14 months, we’ll reauthorize Export-Import,” Lucas said. “And we’ll, I fear, reauthorize exactly what we have. That would be a horrible opportunity missed.”

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