The fall congressional session that kicked off this week will provide a slew of must-pass legislative vehicles to which supporters of the lapsed Export-Import Bank may seek to attach a reauthorization, but private-sector sources said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) may be less inclined to attach Ex-Im to these proposals so as not to worsen his already strained ties with House conservatives.
Industry supporters of Ex-Im identified four potential vehicles for renewing the bank, without indicating a clear preference for any of them. They are a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the federal government funded past Sept. 30; a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which expires the same day; a long-term highway bill prior to an Oct. 29 deadline; and legislation that raises the federal debt limit before the U.S. government's borrowing authority runs out in November or December. Ex-Im's charter expired on June 30; since then, the bank has been prevented from approving any new financing.
But sources said that adding an Ex-Im reauthorization to any of these vehicles could further exacerbate Boehner's tense relationship with House GOP conservatives, who vehemently oppose Ex-Im and are already expected to challenge the speaker on many if not all of these must-pass bills.
Conservatives in the House Republican conference want to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood in the CR, and some of them funding the government on principle. In addition, they oppose raising the debt limit without further constraining government spending and they may oppose a long-term highway bill if it increases taxes. The House has not yet passed a long-term highway bill, although the Senate on July 30 passed its version of the legislation that included Ex-Im reauthorization.
Ahead of these fights, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) -- a conservative who has openly clashed with Boehner in the past -- on July 28 fired a warning shot by filing a motion to vacate the speaker's post. If filed properly, such a motion has privileged status, meaning it is assured a floor vote. Meadow's motion, however, was not filed properly, which one congressional source said was done on purpose in order to send a message to Boehner.
Current and former Republican aides said the Meadows resolution is not a direct threat to Boehner, as he has the votes to hold on to the speaker's gavel. But one industry source signaled Boehner will still likely want to avoid angering GOP conservatives too much, as he has made it a priority to show that House Republicans are united.
Chris Vieson, a partner at Public Strategies Washington who was previously an aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, agreed that it will be politically difficult for Boehner to support Ex-Im in any capacity, as it would be seen as a "slap to the face" to conservatives.
In a Sept. 2 interview, Vieson said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) has already won on Ex-Im by allowing it to expire. For Boehner "to go around him, to reauthorize it with Democrats, it would be tantamount to treason," he said.
At the same time, Vieson said Boehner was likely to go against House GOP conservatives on other issues. For instance, Boehner could sign off on a CR that keeps Planned Parenthood funded, or he could cut some kind of deal with Democrats and the Obama administration that allows the federal debt limit to be raised, Vieson said.
But he said it was an open question whether conservatives like Meadows would really follow through on their threat to try and oust Boehner. "At some point, they'll feel like Boehner has sold them out. Whether they take a shot at him is the question," Vieson said. "When they feel like they have been sold out, do they respond by trying to force another type of Meadows resolution to the floor? Are they willing to deploy that tactic? They've always talked about it, but they've always stepped back at the last minute."
Boehner has long been the key focus of Ex-Im supporters who see him as the best chance in overcoming the opposition expressed by Hensarling and key Republican leaders to extending the bank's charter.
But the speaker has straddled a careful line on the bank's future. At an April 30 press conference, he said the bank's sudden expiration could cost thousands of U.S. jobs and implored Hensarling, a staunch opponent of the bank, to devise a plan for considering Ex-Im legislation or else the House risks getting jammed by the Senate. Boehner has since committed to Hensarling that if the Senate sends a must-pass bill to the House with Ex-Im on it, he will have the opportunity to amend it.
Even though all sources agreed that Boehner's relations with conservatives could negatively affect the chances of Ex-Im's passage, they gave different assessments about the chances for a reauthorization to be successfully attached to the CR, which is expected to be the first must-pass bill to come up.
Industry sources emphasized that Ex-Im has a bipartisan and majority support in both chambers, arguing that its potential inclusion in a CR would not be controversial for most members.
But Vieson said House Republican leaders are likely to view the political cost of attaching Ex-Im to a CR as not worth the trouble they will face from their conservative members. Moreover, he expressed doubt that the Democrats would threaten to shut down the government if an Ex-Im reauthorization is not included in the CR.
The second potential vehicle for renewing the bank is the FAA reauthorization; though one source held open the possibility that this could be wrapped into the CR. If the FAA's authorization expires, essential personnel like air traffic controllers would continue to work, but employees like aircraft inspectors will not.
The third vehicle is the long-term highway bill, which Congress is aiming to pass before the Highway Trust Fund expires on Oct. 29. The House leadership has committed to pass its own long-term bill when lawmakers return this month, which would then require a conference with the Senate-passed bill.
The Senate legislation includes the Ex-Im reauthorization bill sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), which would extend the bank's charter until 2019 and lower its financing limit from $140 billion to $135 billion, as well as enacting other reforms.
But industry sources signaled that pursuing Ex-Im reauthorization through the highway bill conference is not their preferred option. This is because it could still take months to hammer out the other outstanding issues with the bill, like how it would be paid for, they said.
Vieson expressed doubt that the highway conference will lead to Ex-Im's passage, noting that House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), a vocal Ex-Im opponent, has become integral to getting the highway bill done in the House.
Instead, Vieson said Democrats are in a better position to use the upcoming negotiations over the federal debt limit to extract an Ex-Im renewal from Boehner. This is because both sides are adamant in avoiding a situation where the U.S. government defaults on its debt. "No one wants to see what's going to happen. That's where the leverage comes in," he said.
According to an Aug. 25 report from the CBO, the U.S. government hit the debt ceiling in March and the Treasury Department has since enacted so-called "extraordinary measures" that allow the government to continue borrowing without raising the limit. If no action is taken, a federal default will occur sometime between mid-November and early December.
Industry supporters of the bank now believe they have until the end of the year to pass an Ex-Imreauthorization. If Congress does not act before the end of the year, supporters fear that Ex-Im consideration will slide into the 2016 presidential election season, which will "suck all of the oxygen out of the room" and prevent lawmakers from tackling many issues. This would delay action on Ex-Im until the new Congress in 2017, where the political dynamics for reauthorization could be very different, sources said.
Vieson predicted that Republican lawmakers who support the bank will not want to break ranks with the leading GOP presidential candidates, most of whom oppose reauthorizing Ex-Im. Only two GOP candidates have expressed support for the bank -- former Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) -- and they are unlikely to emerge as frontrunners any time soon, Vieson said.
Inside U.S. Trade - 09/11/2015 , Vol. 33, No. 35
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