A small but powerful band of House Republicans led a rebellion against party leadership this week — a near-constant theme of Speaker John A. Boehner’s tenure over the past five years.
Except these rebels weren’t the usual 30 to 40 staunch conservatives who have agitated Boehner (R-Ohio) and helped prompt his decision a month ago to resign at the end of this week. This time an even larger bloc of Republicans who are reliable votes for the leadership team linked arms with Democrats for a highly unusual bid to revive an export-subsidy agency that conservatives shut down over the summer.
Seething at the expiration of the Export-Import Bank, an agency once largely supported by pro-business conservatives, several dozen Republicans executed a rarely used procedure to force a vote to reopen the bank with some modest reforms. Once the mainstream conservatives got the legislation to a final vote, the far-right flank was routed as a majority of Republicans supported renewal of the bank, which passed on a vote of 313 to 118.
“The passage of this bill marks a historic day in the House. This is a win for small businesses, hardworking Americans and for rank and file Members who want to get things done for their constituents,” Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher (Tenn.), the lead Republican pushing to force the vote, said in a statement. During debate over the past two days, Fincher complained that the Ex-Im Bank, which facilitates trade by guaranteeing new sales by U.S. corporations to overseas clients, had fallen prey to the ideological fever that has left the House’s leadership in limbo for a month.
It was a remarkable turnabout for establishment Republicans, who have seen their agenda largely stymied by the House’s right flank. Yet the renewal of Ex-Im’s charter became possible largely because the right wing had so much success in ousting Boehner and blocking the ascension of his top deputy, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Fincher filed the discharge petition — the procedure to force the measure to the floor — on Sept. 24, the day that Pope Francis gave his historic address to Congress and a day before Boehner’s bombshell.
“We knew we had to get more aggressive,” Fincher, a third-term lawmaker who was first elected in the tea party wave of 2010, recently told reporters. “And then the next day, I guess it was that Friday, he decided to retire, and so things really came unraveled.”
Counting on the support of all 188 Democrats, Fincher’s group of Republicans needed 40 GOP signatures to reach the magic number of 218 to force a vote on Ex-Im.
What was expected to be a possibly slow-moving process turned very fast two weeks later after the conservative faction effectively blocked McCarthy’s bid for speaker.
The next morning, before they attended an emergency meeting of the House Republican Conference, Fincher and 41 Republicans marched to the House floor to sign the petition. They were joined by enough Democrats to put them over the top and set up this week’s votes.
These petition efforts almost never succeed, because in normal times it’s considered an act of extreme disloyalty for members of the majority to sign on with the other party to push a measure the leadership doesn’t want brought to the floor.
Fincher’s group moved quickly enough to get the legislation on the floor before the new speaker, expected to be Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), could take the gavel later this week. Before Tuesday’s final vote, Ryan spoke against the Ex-Im Bank, as did McCarthy.
One of Ryan’s closest friends is Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), the arch-conservative chairman of the House Financial Services Committee who had frozen any bid to renew the Ex-Im charter.
Tuesday’s final vote, in which 127 Republicans voted for Ex-Im vs. 117 opposed, served as an embarrassing defeat for Hensarling, who had protested Fincher’s move privately and publicly and claimed that a majority of GOP lawmakers opposed the bank.
Afterward, he claimed that the 118 votes was a high-water mark of opposition to the agency. “Momentum is moving in favor of those who oppose Ex-Im’s corporate welfare and instead support a competitive, free enterprise economy,” Hensarling said in a statement. Two-thirds of the Republicans on his committee stuck with him and opposed renewing the bank’s charter.
But with Boehner a lame duck, Ryan not yet in charge and McCarthy losing some clout, there was no leader that could stop the establishment Republicans from a rebellion of their own. Their theme was that they were using the rules of the House that were at their disposal. “This is all about regular order,” Fincher said Monday.
The far-right conservatives, who originally counted Ex-Im’s path toward closing a rare victory, were begrudgingly respectful of their Republican rivals.
“I still think it’s bad policy. But the rules are the rules, and they used them,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leader of the Freedom Caucus, the roughly 40-member group of hard-core conservatives that has been Boehner’s biggest irritant.
By almost every measure, the move was historic. It was just the third time that all 218 signatures — a bare majority in the House — for a discharge petition have been procured on the same day, according to an Oct. 14 report by the Congressional Research Service.
Also, if the bank is revived, it would mark just the third time that a law was passed by going entirely through the discharge-petition route, CRS said. The other two were the first national minimum wage bill in the 1930s and a federal pay bill 55 years ago.
There have been 28 other instances in which the subject of a discharge petition became law, but those cases ended up with the House leadership giving in and negotiating a way for the bill to come to the floor under normal procedures. That’s what happened with the last discharge petition that reached 218 signatures, the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. House GOP leaders, who were opposed to the law, put together a process to hold a 17-hour debate with several competing alternatives before the bill passed.
No such negotiation could settle the frayed House nerves this time. McCarthy tried over several meetings to hash out a compromise between Hensarling and Fincher.
Boehner has stayed quiet on his way out the door, but his position supporting the bank — thousands of jobs in his southwestern Ohio district are tied to its loans — has been clear all along.