WASHINGTON -- A U.S. agency that helps foreign companies buy American-made products is facing the biggest test in its 80-year history as House Republicans press to shut the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
Companies including Boeing, General Electric and business groups for hundreds of manufacturers promised to ramp up their lobbying to prevent the bank's demise, which they said would jeopardize billions of dollars in sales of goods from crop dusters to satellites and airplanes.
"Customers have been telling us for months that they are concerned about the bank's future," Boeing spokesman Tim Neale said by email. "If Ex-Im is not reauthorized, Boeing will be placed at a competitive disadvantage to Airbus," the European plane maker that gets its own government support, he said.
The bank debate highlights a split between factions of the Republican party: tea party-aligned members who back smaller government and oppose the bank and lawmakers who support some aid for businesses big and small.
President Barack Obama has proposed reauthorizing the bank's charter for five years. The plan also would raise the cap on total loans the bank can guarantee to $160 billion from the $140 billion now. The lender last year approved 3,842 requests for assistance, according to its annual report. Small businesses accounted for 89 percent of the total number of deals, it said.
The effort against Ex-Im gained momentum this week
when the new No. 2 House Republican, Majority Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy of California, said Congress should let the bank's charter expire Sept. 30. He said the private sector can offer what the bank gives foreign companies seeking U.S. products.
Without the House's support, even Senate action to extend funding for the the bank wouldn't be enough.
The bank offers loan guarantees and other financing to foreign companies that borrow money to buy American products, which were valued at $37.4 billion in 2013 alone. The backing helped sell a range of U.S. goods, from Air Tractor Inc.'s planes for crop dusting to satellites by Orbital Sciences Corp.
Opponents including small-government advocacy groups like Heritage Action for America and Americans for Prosperity, say the lender meddles too much in markets.
"We see widespread support at the grassroots level and among conservative organizations for letting the bank expire," Tim Phillips, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Americans for Prosperity, said Monday in a statement.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican, favors abolishing the bank. His panel Wednesday holds a hearing with bank critics including Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson and supporters, including Ex-Im Chairman Fred Hochberg.
"Delta has consistently said reforms are needed to stop U.S. taxpayer subsidized financing to our foreign competitors," the airline said today in a statement. "The bank should not be reauthorized without significant reforms."
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who sets the agenda for legislation, is staying out of the Ex-Im fray for now.
"My job is to work with my members to get to a place where they're comfortable," Boehner told reporters Tuesday. "Some people believe we shouldn't have it at all, others believe we should reauthorize it with significant reforms, we're going to work our way through it."
Boehner said he didn't know what effect a bank shutdown might have on the economy.
No legislation to reauthorize the bank has been introduced in the House.
Before the House hearing, the Wall Street Journal Monday reported the bank is investigating four officials for allegations including accepting kickbacks and attempting to help companies win federal contracts. Douglas McNabb, a lawyer for one official, Johnny Gutierrez, confirmed by phone that his client is being investigated and declined to provide details.
"Chairman Hochberg should come fully prepared to discuss all details surrounding these troubling accusations," David Popp, a spokesman for the committee, said in an email.
Matt Bevens, a bank spokesman, said federal laws prevent him from discussing personnel issues, and said the bank acts quickly "when any hint of misconduct or fraud is detected by the safeguards we have in place."
For months, business organizations including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have rallied for Ex-Im's reauthorization. The groups, which succeeded in saving the bank in 2012, are mounting a massive lobbying campaign now to show that American businesses will be hurt unless Congress acts.
"American companies would be put at a unique disadvantage in global markets, resulting immediately in lost sales and lost jobs," according to a letter Monday to lawmakers signed by 865 groups and arranged by the manufacturers' and chamber. Supporters include Alcoa Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp., Manitowoc Co. and Fluor Corp.
The groups hired former Rep. Dick Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, and Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman for former President George W. Bush, to help make their case, Jay Timmons, president of the manufacturers' group, said on a call Monday with reporters.
"Our efforts are really going to be a full court press," he said.
Time is short. After this week, Congress is in session for six full weeks before Sept. 30, with no action during the annual August recess.