Trade proponents could exhale a small sigh of relief Thursday as a trade bill, supported primarily by President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans, cleared another procedural hurdle.
There was great doubt whether the bill could clear a 60-vote threshold, and it was a side deal over the unrelated Export-Import Bank that carried it through. The bank’s charter expires on June 30, and a bipartisan bloc of senators led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., held strong to secure a vote some time next month on reauthorization of the bank, which helps secure funding for foreign companies looking to purchase domestic goods.
How the bill will come to the floor has yet to be determined, and will be worked out with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading GOP advocate of renewing the authorization of the Export-Import Bank, predicted a brief lapse while the reauthorization works through Congress.
Graham said it would be, "just for a few weeks, but we'll retroactively fix that."
He expressed confidence it will ultimately hitch a ride on the legislation to replenish the Highway Trust Fund.
Cantwell told reporters Thursday the deal was hatched by Ex-Im supporters on the floor while senators were deciding how to vote on the trade bill. She made it clear she wanted a clear vote to hold senators accountable.
"They were throwing up various concepts, but we were explaining that something that obscures whether the bank is going to exist or not while you’re in a conference for months and months isn't really what the issue is,” Cantwell said. “The issue is we want a clear vote and we want to make sure that the vote happens before June 30.”
The first available vehicle for bank supporters to secure an amendment vote appears to be the defense authorization bill. That could signal the level of support in the Senate for consideration on another bill, such as reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund.
Cantwell has an unlikely negotiating partner in McConnell, who has repeatedly said he’s against reauthorization of the bank.
“I'm not in support of Ex-Im, but what I've said was that I think they're entitled to a vote, and we'll be working with the supporters of the Ex-Im Bank to make sure they have an opportunity to see where the votes are in the Senate," McConnell said Tuesday at the post-lunch press conference.
It’s unclear if the votes are there in the Senate to pass reauthorization, and chances in the House are far worse. Despite the fact that Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has been supportive of at least winding the program down, House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has been adamant about letting the charter lapse.
In January, the conservative group Heritage Action for America began attacking Republican members of the House who supported reauthorization, calling the bank “corporate welfare.”
It’s possible that if the Senate approves reauthorization, the momentum could carry the bill through House, if Boehner brings it up for a vote. But that's uncertain to say the least.
“Just because the Senate votes on a piece of crap doesn't mean we have to vote for it," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. Boehner confirmed that Cantwell had reached out to him to try to secure a House vote on the bank, but he said Thursday that he "will not make that commitment" to have a vote.
Cantwell told reporters that “the Republican Party needs to stand up and decide whether they’re for essential tools that businesses need to compete in a global economy like the export bank credit agency, or whether they’re with the Heritage Foundation."
Senators who urged action on the bank include Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
Ayotte’s re-election campaign this cycle looks to be competitive, according to Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call Race Ratings . She took to the floor Thursday afternoon to explain her support for the measure and the effect the bank has on New Hampshire’s economy.
Another senator in a competitive race is Rob Portman, R-Ohio; a former U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush. Portman noted Ohio’s heavily reliance on exports and pledged support for the bank with overhauls, particularly to increase transparency and to prohibit the bank from competing with the private market.
“Ohio is a state that believes in exports, but that needs to be balanced,” Portman said. “They don’t want to take away the opportunity to export more with Export-Import Bank being eliminated. ... I think it’s the right approach for my state.”
Niels Lesniewski, Emma Dumain and Matt Fuller contributed to this report. 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.