The question of whether to recharter the Export-Import Bank later this year has divided House GOP leaders in what is becoming an increasingly public disagreement over Republican ideals.
Many House conservatives, led by Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, oppose the bank in its current form as a type of corporate welfare. The bank makes taxpayer-backed loans to help overseas entities buy U.S. products, authorizing roughly $27 billion in fiscal 2013 to back about $37 billion in export sales. Conservative groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth have also come out against it.
However, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor has been a supporter, working to put together a bill in 2012 that raised the bank's lending limit and extended its charter through Sept. 30 of this year. House Democrats also back rechartering and include it in their package of legislation to create jobs and strengthen the economy.
If unresolved, the issue of the bank's charter could pit Cantor against Hensarling — both men are seen as potential successors to Speaker John Boehner — and raise questions about whether Hensarling's committee will retain control of the issue.
Although the charter does not expire for another five months, the issue came to the foreground this week when several prominent Democrats spoke out in favor of rechartering the bank, and one well-known conservative penned an op-ed in opposition.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah wrote a piece this week in the National Review headlined "Ex-Im Bank and the GOP's Cronyism Test," calling the issue a key question for congressional Republicans.
"Whether the beneficiaries of particular Ex-Im Bank loan guarantees are respected, successful companies like Boeing or crony basket cases like Solyndra is irrelevant. Twisting policy to benefit any business at the expense of others is unfair and anti-growth," he wrote. "Whether congressional Republicans say so — and do something about it — during the coming Ex-Im Bank debate will tell us a lot about what, and who, the party really stands for in 2014 and beyond."
Heritage Action and the Club for Growth are actively calling for lawmakers to scrap the reauthorization. "By refusing to reauthorize the bank, conservatives can take the lead in the fight against cronyism and corporate welfare. That's good policy and good politics," Heritage said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who worked with Cantor on the last reauthorization, said, "I have had discussions, preliminary discussions, with Mr. Cantor about moving forward on the Export-Import Bank."
Standing alongside Hoyer, Financial Services ranking member Maxine Waters said she believes there are many Republicans who support reauthorization. (The last reauthorization passed the House 330-93, with all opposing votes cast by Republicans.) She raised the question of whether the Financial Services Committee would retain control of the issue.
"If, for some reason, the chairman does not cooperate and participate in bringing forward a reauthorization, I do believe that the leadership would have to really take a look at how to get it done," Waters said.
In an environment in which much lip service is paid to respecting the "regular order" committee process, word of the comments spread quickly, and prompted a fast response from Cantor's office that no discussion on the issue between Hoyer and the majority leader had taken place.
"The majority leader defers to the committee to review the program and take the legislative steps that they believe are appropriate based on their review," said Rory Cooper, a Cantor spokesman, in a statement. Hoyer's office stood by his comment, underscoring that he had said the discussion was "preliminary."
For his part, Hensarling declined to comment on the matter. But his opposition to the rechartering is well-known.
"I believe there are a number of reforms that should be had if this program is going to be reauthorized," he said in a hearing last month. "I for one remain skeptical that taxpayers ought to be on the hook for this book."
He also said, "I think it's important that this committee works through regular order on the matter of reauthorization."
Sensitivities on the issue may be heightened after a clash last month in which Cantor bypassed the Financial Services Committee — and previous GOP pledges to stick to regular order — to work out passage of a flood-insurance reform bill with Democrats, which Hensarling opposed.
Some Republicans saw that as a public slap to Hensarling, as well as to the jurisdiction of his committee, and are watching to see what happens this time around.
"I lean toward Jeb's position," said Rep. Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican and a member of Financial Services, adding that "I trust this will go through regular order."