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Ghost of Export-Import Bank Haunts Highway Bill

Two weeks after it was supposedly killed, the federal Export-Import Bank may soon be resuscitated by tagging its future to a massive highway funding bill. The congressional gamesmanship has conservatives vowing to kill the bank for good.

Joined by Dave McIntosh (left), the president of the Washington, D.C-based Club for Growth, and U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-B...

WASHINGTON – Two weeks after it was supposedly killed, the ghost of the Export-Import Bank continues to haunt Capitol Hill.

Advocates of the bank, a federal agency that supports companies doing business abroad, are busy trying to resuscitate it by attaching reauthorization to a so-called must-pass bill that will help fund the nation’s highway system.

But the bank has fierce adversaries on the Hill, including several from the Texas delegation. One, U.S. Sen. and Republican presidential aspirant Ted Cruz, essentially threatened to bring down the entire highway bill if needed to finish off the Ex-Im Bank, which officially expired on June 30, though it continues to operate finishing out its pending business. 

“I am willing to use any and all procedural tools to stop this corporate welfare, this corruption from being propagated,” Cruz said at a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

But by tucking the bank's renewal into a highway funding bill that most lawmakers support, the bank's backers hope to overcome the conservative blockade that has stymied efforts to keep it alive. Though it occupies a small niche in the federal government, it has become a lightning rod in conservative politics, serving as the current battleground between limited-government groups and business interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The bank uses loan guarantees, insurance and other support to help American companies do business abroad. 

The House passed the highway funding measure Wednesday without the Ex-Im provision, but many Capitol Hill sources expect it to be added when the Senate takes up the bill in the coming days or weeks, setting up a showdown between the chambers.   

More than almost any other federal government program, constituents feel the effects of Highway Trust Fund from the moment they leave their houses each day and drive to work. In Texas alone, the federal government subsidized $3.3 billion worth of road construction and repairs in 2014. 

Now that other major issues — the controversial Pacific Rim trade deal and a nuclear treaty with Iran — are in holding patterns until the fall, the most pressing issue for Congress is this reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund, now set to expire on July 31.

But thanks to continual congressional gridlock and the ghost of  Ex-Im, the legislation that will replenish the fund is creeping from “must-pass” to “might-pass.”   

If the highway bill returns from the Senate with the bank authorization included, House conservatives who oppose the bank, led by House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, are expected to pull out all the stops to take it back out again.

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, is another vocal critic of Ex-Im and appeared with Cruz at the morning press conference. He promised to "try to make sure that this never comes to the floor again, ever." 

Bank advocates say that a majority of the House — Democrats and Republicans combined — would probably back the bank if given the chance to vote on it. And not all Texas Republicans despise it.

“I’m for reforming the process," said U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. "Not killing it.” 

Cruz entered the fray on Wednesday morning with his filibuster threat, which like many of Cruz’s tactics startled operatives and members. But most on Capitol Hill shrugged off the threat, pointing to an early June vote when 65 senators voted in favor of the bank — more than enough to break a filibuster.

Other Republicans scoffed at Cruz, speculating that his news conference had more to do with presidential campaign fundraising than Senate procedure.

And Ex-Im advocates blasted out press releases questioning the credibility of many of Cruz’s charges against the bank.

“Texas exports more than any other state for a reason: We have the best workers and businesses. And our businesses rely on a host of tools to continue growing and hiring, including the Export-Import Bank,” the Texas Association of Businesses and the Texas Association of Manufacturers responded in a statement. 

“Senator Ted Cruz has failed to understand that and chooses, again and again, to put politics ahead of economic progress and payrolls for his constituents.”

Still, there are mixed opinions whether Ex-Im will survive, or whether it could blow up the highway bill.

A Republican leadership source prognosticated a grim stretch ahead for the bank, while multiple Democratic sources in both chambers insisted the highway bill will return to the House with Ex-Im, and it will arrive on the president’s desk. 

“We’ll see when it gets to here. I’ve heard this,” Sessions said of the Senate speculation on Ex-Im.  

“I do recognize that the Senate is more fired up than some of our House people have been, but they have to pass it first.” 

Patrick Svitek and John Jordan contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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