The Republican House leadership crisis and a seldom-used congressional procedure may bring the newly controversial and recently expired Export-Import Bank back to life.
A coalition of 218 Democrats and centrist Republicans reached critical mass on Friday to file a discharge petition for legislation reauthorizing the bank. A discharge petition brings a bill out of committee and to a vote on the House floor without without requiring committee approval. Under House rules, the bill is guaranteed to receive a floor vote soon, and with 218 backers, it already has enough support to pass.
The government-run Ex-Im Bank helps U.S. businesses by giving cheap loans to foreign corporations to buy American products and services. Shutting it down has become an intense focus for both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in the last year. Reauthorization of the bank expired in July.
Democrats were thrilled with what they pulled off Friday. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, said she knew that committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) wanted to kill the Ex-Im Bank. But Democrats were able to get around him.
"We know he does not like it," Waters said. "But we're past that now."
House passage of the reauthorization bill would bounce the issue back to the Senate. An Ex-Im reauthorization measure passed the Senate in July as part of a broader highway bill, but that legislation never passed the House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he won't take up a standalone Ex-Im bill, and his spokesman Don Stewart said Friday that the latest bill isn't going anywhere.
"The Senate is not going to spend a week on a bill that the leader doesn't support," Stewart said.
But House Democrats remain optimistic.
"I think they will," said Waters.
Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) told reporters that it was "easy" for Senate leadership to say that before "they had a vehicle in their pocket. Strike vehicle, insert the word 'warm turd.' They've got it in their pocket now. If it dies, it's on them."
Heck noted that the House bill is "exactly" like the Ex-Im measure introduced in the upper chamber by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that he talked to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on Friday afternoon about the next steps and that she pledged to work on persuading McConnell to give the bill a vote. The measure had a lot of support when the Senate last voted on it; 64 senators voted to attach it to the highway legislation.
"I would hope that Senator McConnell, under those circumstances, would facilitate bringing a bill that has already passed his house by almost two-thirds to the floor," said Hoyer.
The Ex-Im effort comes in the middle of a Republican House leadership vacuum, following the Sept. 25 resignation announcement from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Thursday's surprise withdrawal from the race to succeed him by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
McCarthy's decision to pull out is "what really lit a fire under" moderate Republicans, Heck said.
Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) said they had thought about using a discharge petition before Boehner's resignation, but that they believed they "had the votes either way."
"I'm putting jobs over ideology," said Fincher. "This is not about think tanks and conservative groups that score people."
Michael McAuliff, Jen Bendery and Ryan Grim contributed reporting.