Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) declined Tuesday to endorse reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, an entity that many large corporations consider critical for doing business abroad, saying that he would consult with GOP colleagues in the coming weeks before deciding how the House should proceed.
The bank's existence has become the latest flash point between business leaders and conservatives who say the entity is a form of "corporate welfare." Boehner's comments are a notable departure from his previous support for reauthorizing the bank, which makes loan guarantees to foreign customers buying from U.S. exporters, especially large aviation firms and defense contractors, including Boeing.
Boehner described the debate as a "rather controversial subject" and said that his previous support for the bank didn't matter now that he's speaker.
"I've got a different job than I had then," he told reporters. "My job is to work with our members to get to a place where the members are comfortable. Some people believe that we shouldn't have it at all, others believe that we should reauthorize it with significant reforms, and we're going to work our way through this."
Boehner's comments follow remarks by incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who said in a nationally televised interview Sunday that he supports letting the bank's charter expire later this year. Outside conservative forces that hold sway over GOP lawmakers, including the Club for Growth, immediately heralded McCarthy's comments.
The bank's current charter expires on Sept. 30 and fewer than seven weeks of scheduled legislative work time remain for the House and Senate to decide what to do.
Whether or not to reauthorize the bank will be the subject of a closely-watched hearing of the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. The panel is chaired by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), one of the bank's most strident critics, who briefly flirted with running for majority leader in the wake of the primary defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
With GOP support for the bank waning, two powerful business groups said Monday that they are stepping up their fight to keep the bank in business.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers announced a new coalition to press for quick action on the bank and released a letter from 865 organizations that argue that the bank has helped U.S. companies overseas and has helped creates thousands of American jobs.
Jay Timmons, president and CEO of NAM, said his group has hired three veteran lobbyists to help make their case on Capitol Hill: Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor and chairman of the Republican National Committee; Dick Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader; and Tony Fratto, who served in the second Bush White House.
But neither Barbour, Gephardt or Fratto have close ties to the current House Republican Conference, a group filled with tea party-aligned lawmakers who have taken a more populist view on economic matters, including the bank's charter.
Boehner disagreed with suggestions Tuesday that the GOP's relationship with the business community could fray in the coming months over disagreements about what to do about the bank and the lack of progress on immigration reform, a priority for many large corporations seeking to hire overseas workers.
"We've got a good relationships with the business community because we're listening to the American people," he told reporters. "They're interested in jobs. The business community is what create jobs in America. And so we're going to continue to work with them. But we're talking about a couple of thorny issues where there's no easy path."
Holly Yeager contributed to this report.