A bill to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank and increase its lending authority cleared a key hurdle in the Senate Monday despite resistance from Tea Party Republicans who denounced the bank that promotes the purchase of U.S. exports as a form of corporate welfare.
Objections to the bank's reauthorization have been rare in the past. But this time around dozens of Republicans in the House and Senate, many of them affiliated with the Tea Party, vowed to fight the bank's continued existence.
Though ultimately unsuccessful in preventing a Senate vote Tuesday, those lawmakers did force Senate Democrats to debate several proposals intended to highlight deficiencies at the bank and arguments for shutting it down.
A bill to reauthorize the bank for an additional three years passed 330-93 in the Republican-led House last week, but the bill split Republicans in that chamber, with the Tea Party faction leading the opposition.
With the bill now in the hands of the Democratic-led Senate, Tea Party senators threw up roadblocks of their own. Democrats responded by portraying Republicans as hostages to an extreme minority within their own party.
"That 93 kind of says it all," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday, citing the number of House Republicans who opposed the measure. "Ninety-three is the mainstay of the Tea Party caucus in the House. They are opposed to everything. They want to kill this bill. They don't want the government to have anything to do with our lives, which is unreal in this modern world."
The fight over the Export-Import Bank was the latest show of strength -- and demonstrated shortcomings -- of the Tea Party movement that swept into office in the 2010 congressional elections. Lawmakers who won office under the conservative fiscal movement's banner have proven strong enough to influence the flow of legislation in Congress but remain largely outgunned by less conservative Republicans, particularly in the Senate.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a Tea Party candidate who won his seat in 2010, was a chief opponent of the Ex-Im Bank, arguing that it provides taxpayer-subsidized loans to profitable companies and questioning why any Republican would support it.
"Republicans have been correct in criticizing the president for trying to pick the winners and losers in energy production," Paul said, referring to government loans to solar energy companies like the now-defunct Solyndra. "Yet, now a majority of the Republicans are poised to vote for their own set of taxpayer-subsidized loans through the Export-Import Bank."
Though unable to block a vote on the reauthorization, Rand and his allies forced Reid to debate five amendments that limited the bank's influence, including one that would have eliminated the bank after a year. Others would have prohibited it from investing in renewable energy or fossil-fuel projects that compete with U.S. energy production efforts.
The bill on which the Senate is set to vote Tuesday would increase the bank's lending capacity by 40 percent, to $140 billion. It has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, who say the bank levels the playing field for U.S. companies competing against foreign firms subsidized by their governments.
The House and Senate bills are identical, which means the reauthorization would go straight to President Obama should the Senate approve it Tuesday.