By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scott Garrett, who sought to shut down the U.S. Export-Import Bank two years ago as a Republican congressman, vowed on Wednesday to run the government trade lender to the full extent of its legal authority if confirmed as its next president.
But Garrett refused to tell skeptical senators at his confirmation hearing that his past views about EXIM were wrong or explain his change of heart about the institution.
"Rest assured that I am committed to keep the bank fully open and fully operational. Period," Garrett told the Senate Banking Committee.
Garrett's nomination is widely opposed by U.S. business and manufacturing groups and by many Democratic senators, who say that he cannot be trusted to restore the bank's full lending and guarantee capabilities that have been hobbled since a 2015 fight in Congress over its reauthorization.
"Putting Mr. Garrett in charge of EXIM would be like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department," said Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who has staunchly supported the bank.
Garrett said he would support the next reauthorization of the bank scheduled for 2019. He also said that part of the reason he wants the job is that he believes in President Donald Trump's economic agenda to restore the U.S. manufacturing sector, which requires government efforts to level the global playing field for U.S. companies.
Garrett was among the leaders of an effort by conservative Republicans in 2015 to kill the bank by denying a renewal of its charter. Accusing the bank of providing unnecessary welfare to big industrial companies such as Boeing and General Electric, they were successful in halting the bank's lending operations for five months before supporters forced a renewal vote.
But since then, EXIM has been unable to approve loans and loan guarantees exceeding $10 million due to a shortage of board members as some Senate Republicans blocked past nominations. This has effectively shut the trade bank out of financing commercial aircraft, large power turbines and other expensive infrastructure projects readily supported by foreign government export lenders for their own manufacturers.
Several Democratic senators unsuccessfully tried to push Garrett to retract his past statements that EXIM "embodies the corruption of the free enterprise system." But Garrett stuck to his line that he would run EXIM according to the letter and spirit of the law, and implement transparency reforms passed in 2015.
Garrett, a fiscal conservative, lost his northern New Jersey congressional seat to a Democrat in the November 2016 elections.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reiterated its opposition to Garrett's nomination following Wednesday's hearing.
"The chairman of the board of the Export-Import Bank is simply too powerful a role to be filled by an individual who cannot clearly articulate a deep-seated belief in the spirit of the organization," the group said in a statement.
The hearing also included nominees for five other EXIM positions, including for three board seats and first vice president. Kimberly Reed, a former U.S. Treasury official during the George W. Bush administration who most recently headed a food industry non-profit group, has been nominated to the latter post.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)