President Donald Trump’s nomination of former Rep. Scott Garrett to lead the Export-Import Bank has opened up yet another front in the Republican Party’s civil war.
Pro-business trade groups, free-market advocates and even social conservatives and gay-rights activists are targeting GOP senators with competing lobbying efforts as they clash over Garrett’s past attempts to shut down the bank and his controversial views on LGBT issues.
The issue could come to a head this fall if Senate Republicans move forward with a hearing and confirmation votes for Garrett. Some of the leading groups opposed to the credit export agency are warning the Senate Banking Committee about the consequences of failing to advance the nomination. Meanwhile, business groups are expected to ratchet up efforts to block Garrett’s appointment.
That has raised the political stakes around the New Jersey Republican’s confirmation and underscored divisions that have contributed to the GOP’s lack of success in pushing major legislation through Congress.
“The logjam over the Ex-Im Bank is just the most recent battle in the ongoing ideological war within the GOP between its pro-business wing and the free-market absolutists,” Compass Point analyst Isaac Boltansky said. “The divides among congressional Republicans appear to be deepening, and I am left with the sense that for some issues, the GOP is closer to a coalition government than a unified party.”
Outside groups are stepping up their efforts as the Trump administration gives Garrett a chance to sell his nomination, which has been under fire since the president announced his pick in April.
At least three Senate Republicans — the number it would take to block his confirmation if Democrats uniformly were to oppose him — have indicated they are on the fence.
Businesses that rely on the Export-Import Bank are stepping up their drive to rally opposition to Garrett because of his attempts to kill the agency when he served in Congress. In 2015, he said the bank “embodies the corruption of the free enterprise system” by promoting crony capitalism.
The bank, which offers loan guarantees to foreign buyers of U.S. exports, hasn’t been able to back deals that exceed $10 million since 2015, when its authorization temporarily lapsed and it lost a needed quorum of board members. Though its charter was renewed by Congress in December of that year, the lack of a quorum continues today.
U.S. manufacturers including Boeing and GE view it as a critical financial backstop.
As Garrett met with senators on Capitol Hill earlier this month, he offered a friendlier public message than he had while in Congress. He said he backed the president’s desire to have a “functional” agency and that his job would be to “fulfill the administration’s agenda of creating more jobs and helping manufacturing in this country.”
But his pitch left a bipartisan group of senators less than satisfied.
“He lost his reelection bid last year, and he’s now saying lots of things to try to get a new job,” said Hamilton Place Strategies partner and former Bush administration official Tony Fratto, who represented a business coalition that supported the Export-Import Bank.
In response to the industry lobbying, outside groups that have worked for years to close the bank are jumping in to help push Garrett’s nomination.
On Aug. 7, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America were among the conservative organizations that sent a letter to Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) warning that they would oppose any appointments to the agency’s board if Garrett’s name did not move forward.
Even after rushing to Garrett’s defense, the bank’s opponents would still like the agency to be shuttered. And if he ends up saying he’s now in favor of reauthorizing the bank as part of his attempt to win confirmation, “it’s politics, pure and simple,” said Andrew Roth, Club for Growth’s vice president of government affairs.
“The fact remains, if the bank is going to have a president, the only person out there that’s capable of reforming the bank or reducing its size is Scott Garrett,” Roth said.
Another issue dogging Garrett among Republicans is his record on gay rights.
His views attracted controversy in July 2015, when POLITICO reported that he told a group of fellow Republicans that he had refused to pay National Republican Congressional Committee dues because it recruited gay candidates.
Garrett later denied that he was against gay candidates and said his concern was with support for same-sex marriage. But the political fallout contributed to his failed 2016 reelection bid and is becoming a more prominent issue in his Senate confirmation.
American Unity Fund, a pro-LGBT conservative group founded in 2013, plans to aggressively lobby to defeat his nomination if it proceeds, said Tyler Deaton, a senior adviser for the organization.
Deaton said nominating someone with Garrett’s record of “vilifying gay Americans” is like “throwing a wrench into something that’s already complicated.”
“We’ve shared our concerns with the White House,” he said. “They’ve not even tried to defend Mr. Garrett’s anti-gay behavior.”
The White House declined to comment on Garrett’s LGBT record.
The Family Research Council, the conservative Christian nonprofit that describes homosexuality as “unhealthy and destructive,” has come to Garrett’s defense. The group has also been critical of the Export-Import Bank.
In a post last month, the group said Garrett’s views on sexuality had “absolutely nothing” to do with his résumé.
“Scott Garrett’s got a strong history of supporting not only free markets but fighting against government largess,” said David Christensen, the Family Research Council’s vice president for government affairs, in an interview. “He would be good at leading the Ex-Im bank. We also think it’s unfair for some groups to try to raise his stance on social issues as a weapon against him.”
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