President Donald Trump is giving former Rep. Scott Garrett a chance to save his nomination to lead the Export-Import Bank just weeks after the president privately questioned the appointment amid intense pushback from business groups.
The New Jersey Republican’s confirmation has been in doubt for months amid concern about his record in Congress, where he led efforts to try to kill the bank and took positions on LGBT issues that unnerved his corporate backers.
An administration official said Trump has “given Garrett an opportunity” to try to prove he can secure enough votes in the Senate. The president has underscored his support for Garrett in conversations with conservative lawmakers, a second administration official said.
“He’s looking to get a reformer in there,” the second official said, adding that Trump hopes Garrett can change the agency. The administration itself is developing a plan to make sweeping changes to the bank, officials said. But it’s unclear when they will be unveiled publicly.
At stake in the fight are the agency’s loan guarantees for foreign buyers of U.S. exports and whether the bank will continue to be hamstrung by a lack of board members needed to approve deals.
Republicans and Democrats who support the Ex-Im Bank have problems with Garrett’s nomination. If Democrats are unified in trying to block his confirmation, he could not afford to lose more than two Republican votes. At least three GOP senators who back the agency appear to be on the fence about his appointment.
This week, with White House legislative affairs director Marc Short in tow, Garrett conducted a round of meetings with senators in an attempt to shore up support.
But in recent weeks, conservatives on and off Capitol Hill — who have long abhorred the Ex-Im Bank — have ratcheted up pressure on the administration to stick with Garrett’s nomination.
"I can tell you there will be Republican senators including myself who will put up quite a fight if his nomination doesn’t go forward,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said in an interview after meeting with Garrett. “We have been reminded recently it doesn’t take many members of the Senate to have a pretty substantial impact."
Garrett’s critics have argued that a majority of the Senate favors the bank and that the votes of those who want to rein in the agency aren’t needed to confirm its next president.
The White House has agreed to another demand by conservatives by rejecting a push by some on Capitol Hill to instead name former House Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) to head the bank, and to merely make Garrett a board member. Trump announced his intention to nominate Bachus to serve on the agency’s board in April.
The second White House official said conservatives have made it clear to the White House that they would not support elevating Bachus to Ex-Im president.
"The president stands behind his nomination and is looking forward to his confirmation," White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom said.
Garrett, who once said the agency embodied "the corruption of the free enterprise system," has tried to strike a supportive tone in public comments about the bank this week.
In a letter to Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Garrett said he backs the president’s policy of having a "functional" export credit agency but that it needed to be "reformed and modernized as outlined by Congress."
"My job would be to fulfill the administration’s agenda of creating more jobs and helping manufacturing in this country," Garrett told POLITICO in a brief interview at the Capitol. "That’s our agenda."
Garrett’s meetings with lawmakers yielded mixed results.
One of the most closely watched visits was with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Scott had previously threatened to oppose Garrett’s nomination without further assurances about his support for the bank. Scott sits on the Senate Banking Committee, which is vetting Garrett’s nomination.
In a statement, Scott said he and Garrett had a "productive" meeting Wednesday but he needed more from the nominee.
"My position has not changed — in order to earn my vote for this position, he needs to make a clear and public statement that he will not seek to dismantle the bank and that he will support its reauthorization," Scott said.
"Mr. Garrett will have that opportunity when he testifies before the Senate Banking Committee, where I will be asking some direct and pointed questions regarding the future of the Bank.”
Scott and and his fellow South Carolina Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, are under intense pressure from business groups to oppose Garrett’s nomination. South Carolina is home to plants operated by Boeing and General Electric, two of the most prominent beneficiaries of the agency.
“Scott Garrett as head of #ExIm is a terrible deal for South Carolina,” National Association of Manufacturers President Jay Timmons wrote on Twitter before Garrett’s meeting with Scott. It was just one of a series of tweets aimed at pressuring the state’s lawmakers to oppose the nomination.
Graham told Bloomberg Television last month that he would “try to get the administration to give us a better nominee.”
After meeting with Garrett Wednesday, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told POLITICO he was undecided about whether to support his confirmation.
"It was a good meeting, but I’ve got a lot of due diligence to do yet," he said.
A meeting on Tuesday with Senate Democrats went poorly.
Sources familiar with the discussion said Garrett told the group he was surprised to have been nominated for the post. The senators later said Garrett declined to discuss his personal views about the bank and refused to confirm that he would unequivocally support its reauthorization.
Garrett was vague about what reforms he’d like to see at the agency, the sources said. By the end of the meeting, people were mostly directing questions to Short because Garrett wasn’t giving enough information.
Short told the group — which included Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) — that Garrett needed to be at the bank to get conservatives to support it, the sources said. Short once advocated on behalf of a Koch brothers-backed group to let the bank expire.
"Today’s meeting was bizarre," the Democrats said in a joint statement.