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U.S. trade bank urges lawmakers to renew charter, avoid 'political games'

President of the U.S. Export-Import Bank Fred Hochberg speaks during an interview with Reuters in Nigeria's capital Abuja October 19, 2011.
President of the U.S. Export-Import Bank Fred Hochberg speaks during an interview with Reuters in Nigeria's capital Abuja October 19, 2011.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers should back a bill renewing the U.S. Export-Import Bank's charter and stop playing "political games" that will only hurt American exports and jobs, the bank's president said on Thursday.

Ex-Im Bank President Fred Hochberg said critics of the export credit agency did not appreciate its role in supporting jobs and exports, and he warned the bank would have to close its doors on October 1 unless lawmakers renewed its charter.

The White House had sent a bill to Congress to extend the bank's lending limit by $20 billion to $160 billion and allow it to operate for five more years, he said.

"It's now in the hands of Congress to review it, debate it, and vote to recharter us so that we give U.S. exporters and their workers and their customers the confidence and security and we are there as a backstop," Hochberg said in an interview.

"I am confident. We have had bipartisan support in the past, we enjoy bipartisan support today," he said, saying opponents who would like to shut down the bank were a "vocal minority."

Some conservative Republicans object to the U.S. government running a bank that makes loans to help exporters and have accused Ex-Im of cronyism as the deadline for extending its charter nears.

Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee which has jurisdiction over the bank, has criticized Ex-Im for interference and said it does not properly diversify risk.

"In many respects (it is) the face of cronyism. It is where government bureaucrats come in and start to allocate credit, pick winners and losers," he said in an interview posted online by the conservative Heritage Foundation on April 17.

Scrapping the bank would be a blow to Boeing, Caterpillar, General Electric and other U.S. companies that rely on Ex-Im financing to make sales in export markets where commercial lending is scarce.

"POLITICAL GAMES"

The lender, which celebrated its 80th birthday in February, backed $37.4 billion in exports in 2013 and poured a record $1 billion into U.S. coffers from its profits. It supports companies exporting goods ranging from wine to cosmetics, satellites, pickles and helicopters.

"We cannot pull the rug out from under them. We cannot play political games with those American jobs," Hochberg said at Ex-Im's annual conference.

Already one Ex-Im customer, a renewable energy company, had been turned down for a project because its competitor had argued political uncertainty meant the U.S. firm might not have the financing to complete the job, he said.

Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the Republican-controlled House, said Congress should reaffirm its support for the bank as soon as possible to restore certainty. Manufacturers said the new bill was an important step.

"We urge members of the House and Senate to expedite legislation to reauthorize the bank before its authorization expires on September 30," National Association of Manufacturers trade facilitation policy director Lauren Airey said.

Boeing Chief Operating Officer Dennis Muilenburg said earlier this month the bank's financing helped offset subsidies and credit financing provided to foreign competitors and shutting it down would risk thousands of U.S. jobs.

But Delta Airlines has long argued that Ex-Im Bank financing allows foreign competitors to buy Boeing planes on better credit terms than it can obtain.

In 2012, when Ex-Im Bank's charter was last renewed, legislation passed the Senate 78 votes to 20, and the House by 330 votes to 93.

Hochberg said the bank had complied with extra reporting requirements imposed at the time. "I hope we can find areas of common ground," he said of the interaction with lawmakers.

"It's a modest increase in our lending cap over a five-year period, that would take us to 2019; $20 billion is not asking for a giant increase," he said.

(Reporting by Krista Hughes; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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