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Outlook for the Ex-Im Bank dims as Congress departs

From the New York Times

WASHINGTON — The prospect that the Export-Import Bank would soon reopen its credit windows to support foreign sales for American businesses was dashed on Wednesday as Congress prepared to recess until September without reauthorizing the 81-year-old agency, leaving its future more uncertain than ever before.

The bank’s charter expired a month ago, its renewal blocked by a formidable minority of conservative Republicans. Supporters had hoped to attach a bank provision to a must-pass highway construction bill before Congress left for its August vacation. The Senate did so early this week, but House Republicans resisted and ran out the clock.

Bank backers, including most Democrats and about half of Republicans, say they will try again this fall. But by then the Ex-Im Bank will be one of many issues vying for attention as Congress struggles to finish annual spending bills and raise the nation’s debt limit in the final weeks of the year’s session.

Though conservatives were all but claiming a scalp in their crusade to shrink government, the Ex-Im Bank is not closed entirely. Even without a charter, by law it must still manage a $107 billion portfolio of loans and loan guarantees, collecting and making payments, and sending proceeds to the Treasury.

The agency cannot, however, enter new contracts. Without reauthorization it will wind down over time. An alliance of exporters will continue to lobby to revive the agency, then, in part by alerting local and national media to examples of export deals and jobs that are threatened if foreign buyers turn to companies in China, Russia and other countries that provide credit assistance.

“What it means,” said Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, lamenting the Ex-Im Bank’s lapse, “is that our businesses — and I should emphasize they’re largely small businesses that benefit from the Export-Import Bank — are competing on unfair terms with foreign competitors who have the advantage of export financing from their governments.”

Mr. Lew addressed the argument of opponents that the bank promotes “corporate welfare.” He told reporters at a session hosted by The Christian Science Monitor that “in a world that everyone that we’re competing with, for all practical purposes, has those kinds of export programs, it is just a profound mistake for the United States to unilaterally disarm.”

Democrats, who view support of the Ex-Im Bank as a pro-jobs stance, are in rare partnership with business groups on this issue. Conversely, groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are denouncing a Congress controlled by their traditional Republican allies.

Such splits between business interests and Republicans are becoming more common as the party’s base has shifted to the South and West, sending to Congress populist conservatives and Tea Party sympathizers who are skeptical of corporate America and Wall Street.

Bruce Josten, a chamber executive, complained in a statement that Congress’s failure to reauthorize the bank came “despite clear evidence that broad majorities in both the Senate and House support it.”

“If Ex-Im isn’t reauthorized soon,” he said, “American workers and companies will pay the price in lost sales and lost jobs.”

Through August, officials from the chamber’s national headquarters are planning to hold dozens of briefings for local and state affiliates and members of Congress, said a spokeswoman, Blair Latoff Holmes.

But conservative groups were celebrating their success as if it were assured. “The bank’s expiration was the culmination of a three-year effort waged by conservatives against a vast, well-funded network of consultants, lobbyists and big-government interest groups,” said Michael A. Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action.

Such groups have money behind them, too, including support from the billionaire Koch brothers.

Opponents argue that the bank mainly benefits giants like Boeing, General Electric and Caterpillar that could finance their own sales to foreigners without commercial credit. They complain that Boeing and other big companies, which receive the largest share of the total funds, use small exporters simply to provide a more sympathetic front.

“Nobody uses me,” countered Steven Wilburn, chief executive of FirmGreen Inc., a renewable energy company based in Newport Beach, Calif., with 11 employees. He said he, not Boeing, paid for his three trips to Washington to try to persuade Republicans to support the bank.

“I’ve begged them,” Mr. Wilburn said. “ ‘If you have alternative sources of financing, please put them through to my doorstep.’ ”

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