• House to vote on reviving bank after longshot bid succeeds
  • Congress faces Nov. 3 deadline to avoid U.S. debt default

The 42 House Republicans who teamed up with Democrats to force a vote on the U.S. Export-Import Bank show the deeply divided chamber can still get things done.

House Speaker John Boehner might try a similar bipartisan formula, too. He could use that approach to raise the federal-debt limit by the Nov. 3 deadline. He could also try to finance the government and replenish the highway fund the same way, infuriating hard-line Republicans on his way out the door.

It’s not so simple. Beyond those key issues, Sarah Binder, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said she doesn’t see many opportunities for similar victories, for Boehner or his successor.

"Failure to act must be unacceptable" for bipartisan coalitions to succeed in most cases, Binder said.

The debt-default deadline is just three weeks away, but first comes a deadline for Congress to replenish the federal highway fund on Oct. 29. Boehner of Ohio also is trying to head off a possible government shutdown after Dec. 11.

“In order to govern around here we may need a bipartisan coalition,” Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent said Oct. 8, a day before he and other lawmakers gathered the 218 petition signatures needed to require a House vote on Ex-Im later this month.

The Ex-Im petition succeeded in part because of two circumstances: a long-term effort to revive a bank that lawmakers in both parties credit with helping companies in their districts sell goods overseas; and turmoil over who will succeed Boehner as speaker, with some Republicans expressing exasperation with conservative members who helped force his ouster.

Gathering Signatures

The effort to restore the bank is an end-run around House leaders strongly opposed to Ex-Im, including Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee that oversees the bank. He and others who oppose Ex-Im say it mostly helps big corporations that don’t need government assistance. Congress allowed the bank’s charter to lapse on June 30.

Republicans Stephen Fincher of Tennessee and Frank Lucas of Oklahoma led the petition signature-gathering among members of their party and were the first two to sign on Oct. 9. Second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland got almost all Democrats to sign the document.

“We thought it was important to have Republicans sign it first so they were signing a truly Republican discharge petition," Hoyer said in an interview. Hoyer of Maryland said his bipartisan work on continuing Ex-Im dated back to discussions with former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, before his surprise 2014 primary loss to a Tea Party-backed conservative.

Various combinations of centrist Republicans have helped Boehner get major items passed in recent years, rankling conservatives. In 2013, for instance, 85 Republicans joined 172 Democrats to pass the fiscal-cliff deal; 49 Republicans and 192 Democrats passed the Hurricane Sandy relief bill; and 87 Republicans joined 199 Democrats to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

The trend continued in March, when 75 Republicans helped finance the Department of Homeland Security without addressing conservatives’ demand to attack President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

Republicans involved in the Ex-Im push reject claims that they abandoned their party. Fincher described the effort that led him to work with Democrats as a "last resort" after the reauthorization measure was blocked in Hensarling’s committee.

Relocating Jobs

The 81-year-old institution has been unable to approve new requests for financial assistance after its charter expired June 30. Since then, Fairfield, Connecticut-based General Electric Co. has announced plans to shift hundreds of U.S. jobs to other countries, directly tying the decision to the lapse of Ex-Im.

While groups like the conservative Heritage Action for America oppose reopening the bank, many traditionally Republican-friendly organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are fighting to reauthorize it, contending job losses are likely without the bank’s aid.

With only 188 Democrats in the 435-member House, at least 30 Republicans were needed to get the 218 petition signatures needed to succeed.

Less than a week after Boehner’s surprise Sept. 25 decision to resign, Fincher began the push that would lead to the petition. Then he and Hoyer needed to make sure enough supportive lawmakers on hand to to sign the petition on Oct. 9.

Hoyer phoned some lawmakers who had schedule conflicts. Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan -- whose husband, former Representative John Dingell, was in the hospital for heart surgery -- got a call from Hoyer while her husband was in the operating room, she said in an interview. When she called Hoyer back, Dingell said, he told her she was needed in Washington.

"He did make it clear he didn’t want me to leave John if he was in any danger, but that he did need me," said Dingell, who said she has companies in her district that benefit from Ex-Im. She went to Washington and signed the petition.

Lucas, the Oklahoma Republican, said he viewed the Ex-Im petition as a one-time effort to force a vote on an issue that has been discussed for a while. It “was simply a move
to maintain regular order in Congress," he said in an e-mail.

‘Pressing Issues’

Another Republican petition signer, Robert Dold of Illinois, said he’s ready to back more bipartisan efforts. Dold, co-chairman of the Tuesday Group of centrist Republicans, said, "I am willing to work with anybody -- both Democrats and Republicans -- who is willing to put people before politics to tackle the most pressing issues facing our country.”

Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan of Ohio said his group opposes a debt limit increase unless it includes "reforms that rein in Washington’s out-of-control spending," suggesting that Boehner might need Democratic votes if he decides to push such a bill.

Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler said he doesn’t want the centrist Republicans’ effort to move Ex-Im forward to become a precedent for other legislation.

"This group worked behind closed doors with the number two Democrat of the House to advance a policy that is opposed by a majority of the Republican conference," said Holler, whose group opposes Ex-Im and calls it a form of corporate welfare. "The challenge is to ensure that this does not become a method that this group uses to govern."

To be sure, much remains to be done. If the House passes the Ex-Im measure as expected, the bank’s fate may rest with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who so far has shown little enthusiasm for renewing the 81-year-old institution’s charter. A Senate test vote in July showed 64-29 support for reviving the bank.

“Senator McConnell has been fairly strident in his opposition to the bank,” Heritage’s Holler said. “It’s one thing to get this through the House, which is on its own a labor intensive and politically difficult process, but then you still have to overcome the Senate hurdle.”

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has said he’s opposed to the bank, doesn’t plan to allow a vote on separate legislation to reauthorize Ex-Im, his spokesman, Don Stewart, has said. That still leaves room for the Senate to add language reauthorizing the bank to another bill.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina where Boeing has plants, said he’s hopeful that the Senate will again vote on reviving the bank. Asked whether he’d received a commitment from McConnell for a vote, he said, "We’ll keep talking."

The Ex-Im Bank proposal provides an unusual opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together, said Binder of the Brookings Institution.

The bank is backed by a "unique alignment of Democrat and Republican interests," she said. "And Democrats are happy to stick it to Republicans when they’re down."

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