WASHINGTON — Congress is about to decide the fate of an obscure federal agency that has become improbably tangled in presidential politics and Republican Party infighting, and the billionaire Koch Brothers may end up on the losing side.
Conservative Koch-backed groups are among those pushing Republican lawmakers and candidates to oppose the Export-Import Bank, which underwrites loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods. They argue it amounts to corporate welfare.
On the other side are most Democrats, leading business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some business-friendly Republicans who say killing the Export-Import Bank threatens the U.S. economy.
Opponents prevailed last month as congressional inaction caused the Export-Import Bank's charter to expire for the first time in its 81-year history. That means the bank cannot issue new loans or loan guarantees, though it remains open to service outstanding business.
But now supporters are pushing to revive the bank by attaching it to highway legislation that will be debated in the Senate this week and must be approved by the end of July. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledging that supporters have the votes to prevail, opponents are in danger of getting rolled.
"I don't think it's any question we'll get to 60," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., sponsor with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., of a bill to renew the bank for four years, referring to the vote total needed to advance legislation. "We need to do everything we can to get the Export-Import Bank reauthorized."
The outcome is less certain in the House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has pledged an open process and opponents are working on their strategy. But having succeeded in turning the bank into a conservative rallying cry, opponents are not going down without a fight.
"This is a battle. Do you stand for the rich and powerful who corrupt Washington and use this institution against the American taxpayer, or do you stand with the taxpayer?" presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked at a recent news conference with leaders of Club for Growth, Tea Party Patriots, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action for America.
Vowing to use "any or all procedural tools" to stop the bank from being reauthorized, Cruz also demanded that McConnell and Boehner help keep the bank shut.
"Every person here will gladly celebrate strong Republican leadership — if we in fact have strong Republican leadership," Cruz said.
Cruz's comments underscored the Export-Import Bank's surprising transformation from a little-known government lending institution into a litmus test for conservatives.
Until recently large bipartisan majorities in both chambers regularly renewed the bank. But after a tea party-infused GOP majority retook the House in 2010, conservatives began seizing on the bank, making a 2012 reauthorization vote a struggle for the first time.
This year, with Republicans in control of the Senate and a presidential campaign underway, conservatives have targeted the Export-Import Bank even more assertively.
Several circumstances contributed, including opposition from new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
And the Koch Brothers took on the cause through their allied organizations Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners, pressuring GOP presidential candidates who are jockeying for the Kochs' coveted financial backing to toe the line.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been particularly obliging, participating in a town-hall event hosted by Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire last month that focused on the Export-Import Bank, and a conference call by Freedom Partners to celebrate the bank's demise. Aides note Rubio has long opposed the bank.
Freedom Partners earlier this year left Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's name off a news release thanking his rivals for opposing the bank, after which Walker came out more clearly against it. And Americans for Prosperity is hosting a town hall later this week with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that will include discussion of the bank, according to the group's chief executive, Luke Hilgemann.
"Americans for Prosperity found this bank as an opportunity to exemplify to the American citizen what crony capitalism is and why it's such a problem in Washington," Hilgemann said. "We've educated tens of thousands of citizens on why this issue is so important, and they are the ones that are pushing it forward."
Supporters of the bank voice frustration at their opponents' success in turning the Export-Import Bank into a cause celebre. But the nearly unified opposition among the presidential candidates may not be enough to overcome the bank's entrenched support among Democrats and establishment-minded Republicans on Capitol Hill.
"The politics on this are such that the special interest groups that raise money for conservative political campaigns have won the branding war with crony capitalism, and that's the bottom line," said Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla. "The politics got out in front of the policy on this one, and I think the important thing for Congress is for cooler heads to prevail on all issues."