Ex-Im Supporters' Only Option: Hitch a Ride on the Highway Bill

The bank's backers aren't thrilled with the idea of attaching their bill to the roads measure, but they don't have a better one.

Conservatives have had a week to celebrate the closure of the Export-Import Bank, whose authority to give out new loans to U.S. businesses selling their wares abroad lapsed on June 30. But that party, supporters of the bank hope, will be short-lived.

Democrats and a handful of Republicans who hope to reopen the bank say they have sufficient votes in both chambers to pass a new Export-Import authorization. The question is how to get there and how long American businesses that relied on the bank's loans will have to wait.

Senate Democrats who support the bank huddled with President Obama at the White House on Wednesday morning, his second such gathering with members of the minority party in as many days, to discuss their options.

But even as members returned to the Capitol from the White House, it remained clear: There aren't many options at all.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised supporters a vote to reauthorize the bank sometime this month, but it increasingly looks as if their only option will be to try to attach that vote as an amendment to the upcoming transportation bill, which will likely not pass the upper chamber until the end of the month.

That's not soon enough, say supporters. Every day that the bank remains closed, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar put it, "China is going to eat our lunch." Others, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, are skeptical that there will be a highway bill to attach it to at all, given the little that members have heard from the committees involved despite a pending July 31 deadline.

But it's unclear what other alternatives Ex-Im supporters have.

One would be to try to pass the bill on its own, as Sens. Cantwell and Heidi Heitkamp have been urging for weeks. But that would require cooperation from McConnell, which even Heitkamp admits is extremely unlikely to happen.

"We have a vehicle; it's called the bill," Heitkamp said. "It's got overwhelming support. You could bring it out on a rule that would advance the bill. Now, do I think that's going to happen? The answer is no."

Even then, although supporters say that the votes are there in the House, opposition to reopening the bank's doors remains adamant in the lower chamber among conservative Republicans, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise. In order to get the bill on the floor, Senate advocates will have to attach it to something the House can't ignore.

That leaves the highway bill, the only must-pass piece of legislation the Senate plans to take up before leaving for August recess. The education bill the Senate is voting on this week is not an option because it won't pass the House, Heitkamp said. And trying to attach it to an Iran agreement, assuming a deal is somehow struck in the coming days and Congress acts quickly, could threaten the underlying nuclear deal.

In other words, the highway bill may be supporters' worst option, but if they hope to reopen the bank before September, it looks to be the only alternative available to them.

In the meantime, Democrats with the help of the White House are amping up public pressure to reauthorize the bank, hoping to find a speedier path for the bill through the Senate and to break the logjam of opposition in the House.

Heitkamp said Obama promised Democrats that, after passing trade legislation (which was odious to many in the conference), he would turn his attention to helping them to reauthorize Ex-Im. "So far, he's living up to his word," she said.

But supporters worry that conservatives' messaging, particularly in the wake of the bank's lapse in authorization, is winning out on an issue that's difficult to encapsulate in 30-second ads and talking points.

"I think this delay and the lapse in the charter has emboldened the people who are viciously opposed to the bank. "¦ Watching the clips on the bank, you can see there's a lot of misinformation that's being spread right now," Heitkamp said.

Klobuchar praised Obama and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for helping in the effort to promote reauthorization. The Chamber has already spent more than $1 million on advertising targeting Republican voters on television and on conservative radio.

Meanwhile, conservative outside groups like FreedomWorks are pushing members and the public to stand strong in their opposition to the bank, warning that Democrats will try to sneak through a reauthorization via unrelated legislation. "Ending the Ex-Im Bank's authorization for the first time in 80 years was a great achievement. Now we have to remain vigilant to ensure it doesn't rise from the dead," FreedomWorks warned conservatives on Wednesday.

And on the same day bank supporters met with Obama, the House Freedom Caucus officially announced its long-assumed opposition to reopening the bank, which Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan has called a " 'bridge to nowhere' of corporate welfare" and a boon for "special interests." The group warned Wednesday that an attempt to reauthorize the bank could threaten any underlying legislation sent over from the Senate, including the highway bill.

But Ex-Im boosters say they plan to broadcast stories they're hearing from home-state businesses who are losing opportunities because of the bank's lapse.

"The more we can tell the story about people losing opportunities or slowdowns in sales, the more the American workers are going to have to come to the support of the Ex-Im bank," Heitkamp said.