It has taken nearly five years and the resignation of a speaker, but moderate Republicans in the House have taken their most aggressive step to undermine the influence of hard-right conservatives in the party.
A group of more than 50 GOP lawmakers joined nearly the entire Democratic caucus to force a vote on legislation reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, the 80-year-old federal lending agency that shuttered when Republican leaders refused to renew its charter. The bipartisan coalition on Friday introduced the bill through a discharge petition, a rarely-used procedural mechanism that allows lawmakers to bypass both committees and the leadership to call up legislation signed by a majority of the House. It’s a maneuver that was last executed 13 years ago and only five times in the last eight decades, lawmakers said.
“This is a once-in-a-generation thing,” Representative Denny Heck of Washington state said as Democrats celebrated the 218th member to sign the petition, ensuring it had the support to succeed.* Under House rules governing discharge petitions, the actual vote would come on October 26, but its passage appears no longer in doubt.
The move doesn’t quite guarantee that Ex-Im—as it’s known in Washington—will be reauthorized. The Senate has approved it, but as part of a separate highway bill that hasn’t passed the House. And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he won’t block renewal of the bank’s charter despite his personal opposition, there’s no equivalent process to quickly force a vote in the upper chamber. “The Senate is not going to spend a week on a bill that the leader doesn’t support,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said. Still, supporters of the bank said that once bipartisan majorities are established in both the House and Senate, final passage is only a matter of time.
The broader significance of the move is that dozens of House Republicans dared to try it at all. The little-known lending agency has long supported U.S. jobs by helping companies find markets overseas, but conservatives have turned its demise into a rallying cry against corporate welfare, arguing that it gives taxpayer dollars to giants like Boeing and G.E. that don’t need government subsidies. Outside groups succeeded in pressuring two of the three top House Republicans to oppose it. While House Speaker John Boehner has supported the Export-Import Bank, he has lacked the political capital to go around the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Jeb Hensarling, who has made it a personal mission to kill the bank. Even after Boehner announced his resignation, it was unclear whether he would bring up the legislation on his own.
“We were just hitting a brick wall,” Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said by phone on Friday. Members of both parties have been under intense pressure from business groups complaining that the expiration of the bank’s charter has resulted in job losses for companies big and small. Still, Republicans were reluctant to take what Kinzinger called the “extraordinary step” of joining with Democrats to force a vote. Democrats have tried to lure Republicans into signing discharge petitions before, most recently in 2014 when GOP leaders blocked a vote on a bipartisan immigration overhaul passed by the Senate. Many of the same Republicans demurred then, wary of confronting the leadership and the conservative base on such a far-reaching bill.
Yet the frustration mounted, and the decision by rank-and-file Republicans to move on Ex-Im coincides with the broader party chasm that has broken open in the last month. Lawmakers like Kinzinger and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania have called on more moderate, or at least mainstream, Republicans to counter members of the House Freedom Caucus who forced Boehner to resign and Kevin McCarthy to abandon his bid to succeed him. The Ex-Im push is part of that effort, although it has been led in part by Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, who is more conservative on many other issues. “This is somewhat the result of frustration about that, so this could portend opportunities to work together in the future,” Kinzinger said.
Hensarling reacted angrily. “Signing a discharge petition puts the minority in charge and effectively makes Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House,” he said in a statement. “At a time when our Republican conference is divided, this will divide it even further.” Democrats were jubilant, viewing the success of the petition as a breakthrough which, in the words of Representative Gwen Moore, demonstrated that “democracy does work every once in a while.”
The success of the discharge petition is certainly a victory for supporters of the Export-Import Bank, but whether it herald a new order in the House remains to be seen. Will the same coalition collaborate to raise the debt ceiling or fund the government if hard-line Republicans grab power in the coming weeks? Kinzinger was cautious, but Hensarling seemed worried. The maneuver, he warned, “sets a very serious, very dangerous precedent for our Republican majority that goes far beyond Ex-Im.”
It might be dangerous for staunch conservatives, but it’s a much more hopeful sign for Republicans and Democrats who feel they’ve gone too far.