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Senate Takes A Step Toward Riving Export-Import Bank


A political uproar over the Export-Import Bank is no doubt prompting a burning question for many voters - what's the Export-Import Bank? Oh, and also how did it become the focus of a fight among Republicans? The bank charter recently lapsed, and during a rare Sunday meeting yesterday, the Senate tried to revive it. We're going to talk this over with David Wessel. He's director of the Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institution and a contributing correspondent of the Wall Street Journal as well as a regular guest here. Welcome back, David.


INSKEEP: So what does the Export-Import Bank do?

WESSEL: It's an 80-year-old agency that makes and guarantee loans to foreigners who buy stuff from the U.S. often at better terms than they could get if they could get terms at all in the private market. It supports $27 billion in U.S. exports a year. It sounds like a lot, but it's only about 2 percent of all U.S. exports. It's particularly important to a few big firms - Boeing and GE - and a number of smaller manufacturers.

INSKEEP: OK, loaning money overseas so that people can buy American stuff - sounds good. But when you mention those big corporations, I wonder if we're beginning to touch why this would be bothersome to some people.

WESSEL: Absolutely. So basically, this has emerged as a high-profile symbol for Republicans who want to shrink the government's role in the economy - partly because EXIM needed a vote of Congress to stay in business, partly because it was small enough to knock off and partly because there a lot of people, not all of them Republicans, who see this as an example of corporate welfare - taxpayer aid that benefits politically powerful companies more than it helps the economy overall.

INSKEEP: OK, so what is the case then for keeping a bank that helps the likes of Boeing, Caterpillar and GE?

WESSEL: Well, it's pretty simple. If EXIM dies, U.S. companies, like the ones you mentioned, are likely to lose business to companies from other countries - China or Europe - that have these banks or maybe move their manufacturing there. And even people who think all government should get out of this business of financing exports say that disbanding the U.S. EXIM Bank now is the economic equivalent of unilateral disarmament, and it's just silly.

INSKEEP: You know, I mentioned that this was a divide among Republicans, and you've talked about that. Where do Democrats fit in all of this?

WESSEL: Well, most Democrats largely favor renewing the EXIM Bank, including President Obama who actually was pretty critical of the bank when he was in the Senate. But as you say, the Republicans are bitterly divided. Pro-business Republicans are for it, Tea Party Republicans are generally against it, but in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, is against it. House Speaker John Boehner is for it, but his number two, number three leaders are against it - as are two of the key committees.

In fact, the debate among Republicans has been so tense that it had Ted Cruz of Texas calling Senator McConnell a liar for the way he handled this, which meant much of yesterday's conversation of the Senate was scolding Ted Cruz for what he said about Senator McConnell rather than about the underlying issue.

INSKEEP: You know, years ago you would've assumed that after all the smoke and so forth of a debate like this, the bank would just be renewed. Is it certain what will happen here?

WESSEL: No, it isn't certain. I mean, right now the EXIM Bank can't make any new loans without congressional action. That's pretty unusual. The Senate's probably going to attach renewal of the EXIM to a highway bill this week, perhaps as early as today. And there's probably a majority in the house to renew the bank if the Republican leadership - if John Boehner will bring it to the floor. So the big question now is, will he defy his leadership and his Tea Party members and bring the EXIM Bank up for a vote before they go on summer vacation?

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much.

WESSEL: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's David Wessel of Brookings and the Wall Street Journal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.