WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the Senate on Tuesday blocked efforts to force a vote on renewing the nearly 80-year-old U.S. Export-Import Bank's charter for four more years, despite broad business support for the measure.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid accused Republicans of providing cover for conservative "Tea Party extremists" in the House of Representatives, who oppose renewing the bank's charter or raising its current lending cap.
"Once again, Republicans are manufacturing a fight instead of working with Democrats on bipartisan solutions to create jobs. Reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank is something that has always been done on a broad, bipartisan basis," Reid said in a statement.
The Eximbank is the official credit agency of the United States. It provides direct loans and other credit assistance to help U.S. manufacturers make sales in markets considered too risky by private banks.
It has helped Boeing, its biggest customer and the United States' largest exporter, sell more than 460 commercial aircraft over the past three years.
The bank's temporary charter expires on May 31, requiring congressional action to keep the bank going.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he supported renewal of the bank's charter and predicted quick approval if senators were allowed to vote on it separately.
But he urged Republicans to oppose Democratic efforts to add Eximbank renewal to a bill passed by the House of Representatives to help small businesses raise capital.
"If we add the Eximbank to it, we only delay the passage of this bipartisan jobs bill and we send it back to the House and we don't know how they feel about the Exim extension," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
The Senate provision would renew the Eximbank's charter for four years and raise its lending cap to $140 billion, from $100 billion.
House Republican leaders have proposed an alternative bill that would renew the bank's charter until June 1, 2013, and raise the credit ceiling to $113 billion. Eximbank President Fred Hochberg has called that approach inadequate.
The conservative Republican group, Club for Growth, opposes reauthorizing the bank, which it says is an unnecessary government intrusion in the marketplace and puts taxpayer funds at risk.
A senior Democratic aide said members of his party were surprised that Republicans lined up against the bank amendment, saying Democrats had expected it to be added to the House small business bill, making the measure far more palatable.
A senior Republican aide denied that Senate Republicans were providing cover for Tea Party conservatives in the House. He noted that McConnell had offered to bring up the bank amendment as a free standing bill as early as Wednesday.
Eximbank supporters still hold out hope the two chambers can reach a deal before lawmakers before the end of March, when lawmakers will leave on a two-week recess.
Bank officials have warned they could have to stop issuing new loans or credit guarantees in coming weeks because they are already bumping up against the $100 billion credit ceiling.
They also defended their lending record, saying they have experienced very few defaults and have actually made money for the Treasury in recent years.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer and Tom Ferraro)