After several weeks of rancorous infighting over trade, Democrats are gearing up for the next policy fight—and this time, they say, they plan to stay united. But that won't matter if they can't get Republicans on board.
Democrats from every wing have called for saving the Export-Import Bank, which is set to expire at midnight Tuesday. But despite a vocal push to pressure House and Senate GOP leaders to bring a reauthorization bill to the floor, it's unclear if their united front will be enough to revive the bank when Congress returns in July.
The Export-Import Bank deals out loans to U.S. companies looking to do business overseas, which most Democrats and some business-friendly Republicans say is crucial to supporting thousands of jobs. But many conservatives, and a small handful of progressives, say it's classic government cronyism, with Washington choosing which businesses get assistance in their forays into foreign markets.
While it appears Ex-Im has clear majorities in the House and Senate, GOP leaders have yet to bring it to the floor with a chance for passage. Though a Senate vote may take place in July, House conservatives are pressing their leaders not to allow it to move forward. Speaker John Boehner has said the bank should not simply expire, saying reforms or a slow wind-down would be a better option to protect the jobs it supports. But Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise, his top two lieutenants, both favor the bank's expiration.
Some conservative groups already are taking a victory lap over the bank's pending demise. "[C]onservatives created the conditions that caused the Export-Import Bank to expire and enter liquidation," said Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham in a statement. " Now it is up to Republican leaders to accept and preserve this major policy victory."
But Democratic leaders are telling anyone who will listen that the bank's shutdown won't last long. "I remain hopeful that this shutdown will be short-lived," said House Financial Services Committee ranking member Maxine Waters. "We have the votes, and when we return in July, we will keep pressing."
The bank's reauthorization will likely have to pass the Senate first, as House Speaker John Boehner has deferred to Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling—a bank opponent—for a House-drafted bill. When asked about the House's plans for the bank at the end of June, Boehner told reporters the issue was up to the Senate: "We've been expecting that it's going to get attached to something over in the Senate and come over to the House, and when it does, we'll deal with it. Until then, we won't."
There may be reasons for optimism in the Senate. In a deal to allow trade legislation to get through the upper chamber unencumbered, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised supporters of the bank, including Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Republican presidential contender Lindsey Graham, a July vote to reauthorize the bank's charter and reopen its open doors.
House Democrats are taking McConnell at his word. "Senator McConnell promised Senator Cantwell that that issue would be on the floor," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. "I believe that this matter will be considered in July."
McConnell also allowed a procedural show vote earlier in June, to give supporters a chance to display their strength in numbers, if not keep the bank afloat before the deadline, and 65 senators voted to allow the reauthorization bill to proceed before Republicans withdrew the amendment. But the vote showed that there are more than enough votes in the Senate to exceed the 60-vote threshold to proceed and reopen the bank in July.
When that vote will occur is another question. Graham told National Journal in May that McConnell agreed to allow a vote to reauthorize the bank as an amendment to a "must-pass" bill in July, though neither senator specified what bill that would be.
Supporters, including Cantwell and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, say they're still undecided on which vehicle they'll use to reauthorize the bank. They and other members who support Ex-Im will meet with President Obama at the White House on July 8—Congress' first day back in Washington after the holiday recess—to decide how to proceed, Cantwell told reporters in a news conference with Heitkamp last week. House Democrats indicated that meeting would be senators-only.
McConnell has suggested that supporters should use the coming vote on the highway bill to pass their Ex-Im reauthorization; highway funding expires July 31. Although supporters haven't ruled anything out, Cantwell was critical of that approach during her news conference.
"We're not interested in one more day than necessary of the bank's expiration. "¦ We don't even know what's going to happen on the transportation bill. The transportation bill could be another short-term extension," Cantwell said. "So what we're going to do is we're going fight every single day."
House Democrats had also heard of the highway bill plan, though they wouldn't speculate on which Senate vehicle would be the chance for Ex-Im. "I'm confident that the opportunity will be there," Waters said.
Some Democratic Ex-Im supporters already have expressed frustration with McConnell since Republicans pulled the June authorization amendment from the floor. McConnell has repeatedly said that he offered supporters a June vote and they got one. Graham, who has pushed heavily in favor of reauthorization, agreed, telling National Journal in June that the leader had held to his word.
But Heitkamp was skeptical. "When we won that vote on the motion to table, they withdrew the amendment. So I don't know how anyone can look at that and say that was a fulfillment of a commitment to put Ex-Im on a vehicle that could in fact result in preventing the shutdown of Ex-Im at the end of this month," she said.
Cantwell said that she and other supporters now are pushing for "immediate consideration" of the bank's reauthorization when they return to Washington on July 8. The Senate is scheduled to kick off its July session with votes on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which makes changes to No Child Left Behind.
"We know that there are a number of ideologically right groups who don't like the bank. But you know what, in America a majority ought to rule and in our case, a supermajority ought to rule," Heitkamp said. "And we ought to get this done."