The room where the House Freedom Caucus frequently convenes is really too small for a group of 30-some-odd congressmen. It's certainly too small for a meeting with more than a dozen speakers and 20 reporters. But, on Tuesday, the oddly shaped room on the fourth floor of the Cannon House Office Building was the site of the conservative group's first news conference — and the HFC might have finally found an issue they can make a name for themselves on: the Export-Import Bank.
"In the mission statement for the House Freedom Caucus, we have this: 'The goal of the House Freedom Caucus is to give voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them,'" the chairman of the HFC, Jim Jordan of Ohio, said. "One big reason so many Americans think this town has forgotten them is because they see big corporations cozy up to big government to get special deals with their hard earned tax dollars."
"And in 40 days," Jordan said, referring to the expiration of the bank's charter next month, "we have a chance to start to change that. In 40 days, we have a chance not to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank." Tapping into a middle-America frustration with Congress, the Ohio Republican said all that was required of lawmakers to end the bank was doing what Congress does best: "nothing."
If lawmakers can't do that, Jordan said, "I don't know what good we are."
The Ex-Im battle is shaping up as a defining moment for the 114th Congress, maybe even the conservative movement. Critics of the bank are optimistic the June 30 deadline will come and go on the export credit agency, which helps finance loans for foreign companies purchasing U.S. goods.
Critics like Jordan and other fiscal hawks contend the agency's financial services amount to little more than "corporate welfare," but most Democrats and plenty of pro-trade Republicans say the loans help create American jobs.
John A. Boehner has indicated the fate of the bank is up to Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, who wants to let the charter expire — but the speaker has also said the Texas Republican "needs to come up with a plan ."
Speaking at the press conference Tuesday, Hensarling said Ex-Im was a critical vote — "hopefully a non-vote" — and he called the debate an important chapter in the history of the Republican Party.
"What is it that our party stands for?" Hensarling asked.
"Do we stand for free enterprise interests and its hope, its fairness, and its opportunity?" the Texas Republican continued. "Or do we stand for business interests? Because those two are not identical."
Hensarling said the members at the podium were trying to lead the GOP in "a new direction," and he thanked Boehner and other GOP leaders for committing to use regular order on Ex-Im, presumably meaning leadership wouldn't give floor time to a clean reauthorization that hadn't gone through committee.
When CQ Roll Call asked Boehner's office if Hensarling actually has a commitment for regular order on Ex-Im, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel gave a two-word reply via email: "He does."
But regular order could very well mean the Senate tacks an Ex-Im reauthorization onto another must-pass bill. While there aren't very many of those between now and the end of June, Hensarling said if the Senate were able to send a bill over to the House, he would expect, "at a minimum," a robust amendment process.
Hensarling even mentioned the possibility of going to conference with the Senate on an Ex-Im bill. That assumes, of course, that the Senate could quickly move a reauthorization. And that the House would move shortly after so that there'd be time for a conference, which could just be a dilatory tactic anyway.
Ex-Im proponents seem to be hanging their hopes on the Senate moving a bill and "jamming" the House. But, as Heritage Action pointed out in a memo Monday night , there are difficulties with the Senate passing a bill. For one, any effort to attach an amendment or vote on a bill would face procedural hurdles, as Republican senators race to prove they're the most ideologically pure on Ex-Im. (Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, joined the House members Tuesday and is a strong candidate to filibuster a Senate bill.)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he's personally opposed to an Ex-Im reauthorization, but he's also said he won't stop members from voting on a bill.
Still, even if the Senate could pass Ex-Im legislation, regular order, Heritage Action contends, would dictate that the House Rules Committee gets to decide what to do with the bill, meaning they could refer it to the Financial Services Committee, where it would likely be stuffed in a filing cabinet. Or the Rules Committee could do nothing.
Lawmakers who want to renew the credit agency seem to be running out of time. And if Boehner really is committed to "regular order," there are plenty of tricks that can eat up the bank's remaining time.
Of course, Boehner could, in some form or fashion, go back on his word. But, for now, conservatives don't think that's likely.
"We don't think it's going to happen," Jordan said. But the HFC chairman did make it clear that the group would do whatever was in its power to block a reauthorization.
"We're committed," Jordan said. "The House Freedom Caucus has taken a position. We're committed to doing anything we can to stop this."
Whether HFC members really mean anything — Would they vote down rules? Would they obstruct other House business? — remains to be seen. As for now, they're certainly talking about the issue.
Rep. John Fleming predicted big things for the HFC. The Louisiana Republican called the caucus "a new conservative group that I think you'll be hearing more from in the coming years."
That, too, remains to be seen. But blocking the Export-Import Bank would certainly go a long way in proving his point.
Related: Boehner Tells Hensarling to Develop Ex-Im Bank Plan (Video) Conservatives Surprisingly Optimistic About Ending Ex-Im Bank Conservative Groups: Let Ex-Im Bank Expire 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.