In this Feb. 4, 2012, photo, a German cargo ship crosses New York Harbor. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

The agency’s charter expires in May and it is on the verge of hitting its $100 billion borrowing limit this month. The proposal voted down Tuesday, 55 to 44, would have raised the bank’s borrowing limit to $140 billion over the next three years. Sixty votes were needed to successfully amend a bipartisan jobs bill set for final passage.

Reauthorization of the bank, a self-funding agency that helps promote U.S. firms doing business abroad, is one of several changes senators hope to make to the jobs measure before sending it back to the House, which approved the bill two weeks ago with White House support.

But several Republicans are opposed to expanding the bank’s borrowing limit, arguing that it’s the latest example of unchecked federal spending. Before the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged his GOP colleagues to vote against the measure.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a chief sponsor of the amendment, noted that the Senate has unanimously reauthorized the agency 25 times since its establishment in 1934.

“Here’s a program that for over the last several decades has been passed by unanimous consent, and yet all of a sudden this legislation is being stalled, or held up,” Cantwell said, adding that delaying the reauthorization risked the nation’s economic recovery.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also urged approval of the amendment: “This bill we’re trying to pass is one that would keep in place something that is so important,” he told reporters Tuesday. “What we do to help businesses is minimal. Export-Import Bank is it. China does more than the United States, Great Britain, Canada together. We could at least do this.”

The Obama administration wants Congress to quickly renew the bank’s charter and increase its lending cap as part of a broader plan to double exports in the next three years. But the effort has stalled in the past few months over disagreements about the size of the lending cap.

The debate is unusual because the reauthorization is co-sponsored by Cantwell and Republicans Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), three senators whose states are home to large manufacturing plans owned and operated by Boeing. The trio agree that the bank is needed to continuing promoting U.S. exports, especially from large global firms, including the airplane manufacturer.

But pro-business groups such as the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation oppose the bank, while the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support it. Airlines also oppose broadening the bank’s reach because assistance to Boeing makes it easier for foreign carriers to buy American-made planes. Other business groups argue that the bank’s backing of business loans amounts to favoritism and an unconstitutional overreach of government.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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