A long-running political standoff over the Export-Import Bank of the United States threatens to delay billions of dollars in loans and other financial guarantees for overseas nuclear energy projects.
Congress last year, after months of acrimony, voted to reauthorize Ex-Im. But the bank's foes on Capitol Hill are succeeding in limiting its ability to operate.
Senate Democrats are trying to increase pressure on Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) to move forward with voting on bank board nominee Mark McWatters.
The five-member board currently lacks a quorum and can't approve any export financing deal over $10 million until it adds a third member. McWatters, nominated in January, would fill that opening.
Nuclear energy equipment manufacturers are among the most affected by the bank's limited operations. They are part of some of Ex-Im's largest financing arrangements.
"Each day that Congress deprives Ex-Im Bank of a quorum, it weakens the competitive position of U.S. nuclear suppliers and their employees in this market," said Ted Jones, director of supplier programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Jones estimates the global nuclear energy market is worth $74 billion. He said the support of an export credit agency was necessary for U.S. companies seeking to be competitive.
Shelby, however, said last week that he remained "fundamentally opposed" to an institution he sees as a prime example of corporate welfare, and had no plans for even a hearing on the McWatters nomination. If the committee fails to act, the Senate has no clear path for restoring the bank's quorum.
Many conservatives in Congress say the bank provides billions of dollars in loans to large corporations that could underwrite the deals themselves. Their opposition kept Congress from authorizing the bank for much of last year and kept it unable to make loans of any size.
Ex-Im reopened only after House Democrats and Republicans joined forces to make an end run around GOP leaders. Bank supporters eventually attached the reauthorization to a bipartisan highway bill.
'Nothing's ever dead'
Democrats and more moderate Republicans counter that bank-backed deals support tens of thousands of jobs at U.S. companies both large and small. They also note that the bank doesn't depend on taxpayer dollars.
"The Export-Import Bank needs to function at full capacity so that it can help businesses of all sizes grow, create jobs and compete in the global economy," said Banking ranking member Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who noted that the Senate has confirmed the typical Ex-Im nominee within three months over the past 15 years.
Brown met with McWatters last week as a way of pressuring Shelby. The liberal senator called McWatters a "rock-ribbed" Republican recommended by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Brown also noted the board's nearly $10 billion loan backlog.
The meeting failed to impress Shelby. "I don't care who the nominee is. I'd do the same thing if it were my uncle," he said of his refusal to hold a hearing or vote.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a Banking member who led efforts to reauthorize Ex-Im, took the step of opposing several bipartisan financial regulatory nominees in the committee last week over Shelby's stance. Those nominees ultimately did make it out of committee.
"I don't have strong concerns with the nominees. My vote was a protest vote. There has been a failure of leadership to do the work of the committee and get all nominees through, and it must change," said Heitkamp.
McConnell, who had opposed reauthorizing the bank, said he, too, would like to see the nominee advance. He said in April that he would be "happy" to consider McWatters on the Senate floor.
House Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), wrote Shelby yesterday also urging him to act on McWatters, saying thousands of jobs were at stake. They said the United States may be losing as much as $50 billion in exports each day the bank is not operating at full capacity.
Many observers had hoped Shelby would act quickly on Ex-Im after he beat back a conservative challenge in a primary this March in his bid for a sixth term this fall.
While that has not happened, the Alabama Republican won't rule out moving the nominee before the end of the Congress.
"Nothing's ever dead up here, you know that," Shelby said.
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