It was a smaller room than usual for the monthly "Conversations with Conservatives" event Wednesday. There were fewer attendees than normal, too, both among members and the audience. But among the many topics conservatives delved into — over plates of their customary Chick-fil-A — members seemed united, even hopeful, on one item: the Export-Import Bank.
It's no surprise conservatives want to kill the bank, which has a charter that expires on June 30. But it was surprising just how confident members sounded that they would actually end the 81-year-old agency. Conservatives said they think the bank's looming expiration is one deadline GOP leaders won't cave on. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan began the hour-long discussion by noting that the Republican committee chairmen with jurisdiction over Ex-Im have all come out against the export credit agency, which finances and insures foreign purchases of U.S. goods. Jordan noted that Majority Whip Steve Scalise and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had both stated opposition to reauthorization, and that GOP presidential candidates have also said the bank's charter should expire. He even pointed out that, to end the bank, Congress just has to do nothing — "something Congress is usually pretty good at," he said
"When are the stars going to line up better for that position than now?" Jordan asked.
The Ohio Republican repeatedly called Ex-Im, with so much opposition and so little support, today's "Bridge to Nowhere," referring to the long-proposed Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska, a federal project that has come to represent the worst of pork barrel politics.
"Are you kidding me?" he said. "It doesn't get any easier than this. So if we can't do that much, for goodness sake, what good are we?"
Rep. Raul R. Labrador certainly wasn't jumping to the bank's defense. But he was willing to let the process speak for itself.
The Idaho Republican said if an Ex-Im reauthorization bill went through the committees of jurisdiction — mainly the Financial Services Committee, where Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, who is staunchly against the bank, is the chairman — and if the majority of the GOP conference agreed with reauthorization, then at least leaders would be going through the process. "But if our leadership goes around the committees, then I think there's going to be a problem," Labrador said.
CQ Roll Call asked the panel of conservatives what kind of retaliation GOP leaders would face if they simply put a reauthorization bill on the floor, relying on a coalition of Republicans and Democrats to pass such an extension. But Jordan didn't seem to think such a contingency was very likely.
He once again pointed to "the lay of the land," and after the panel ended, Jordan said recent news of a former Ex-Im loan officer being charged with bribery was further proof of the cronyism that conservatives and outside groups have tried to attach to the Export-Import Bank.
Of course, not every conservatives is as confident as Jordan.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., suggested that companies on the gravy end of the Ex-Im "gravy train" could threaten to withhold campaign contributions for members voting to shut the bank down.
"That's what worries me," said Huelskamp, who at one point opted to refer to the Export-Import Bank as "The Boeing Bank," in reference to the large amount of Ex-Im money Boeing receives as the largest U.S. exporter.
Huelskamp noted that even he had received money from Boeing, and he reiterated that political contributions carried clout.
Huelskamp also noted recent reports that McCarthy might be wavering on his earlier vow of opposition to Ex-Im. For Huelskamp, if companies like Boeing were able to keep the bank, he said it would raise real questions about Congress, whether real people run the institution or whether Washington insiders have taken control.
"It's the easiest choice," he said, "and one way or another way, it's the toughest thing to change in Washington."
Related: Conservative Groups: Let Ex-Im Bank Expire Hoyer: Democrats Want ‘Minimum’ 5-Year Extension for Ex-Im Bank Export-Import Bank Issue Heating Up Among Conservatives, on and off Capitol Hill The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.