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Senate approves head of Ex-Im Bank for second term

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Wednesday voted 82-17 to approve Fred Hochberg for a second term as president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a move that will allow the government-run lender to keep operating past Saturday, when it faced a possible shutdown.

Hochberg has been president and chairman of the bank's board of directors since 2009. His term and those of two other board members expired in January, but they have been serving on six-month extensions that end at midnight on Saturday.

If the Senate had not acted, the bank's five-member board would not have had a quorum after Saturday to approve transactions. That would have been a blow to Boeing and other U.S. companies that rely on Ex-Im Bank financing to make sales in export markets where commercial lending is scarce.

"Any transactions from Sunday on were jeopardized. I heard from exporters who were concerned whether they still had financing they were relying on," Hochberg said after the vote.

Shutting the bank down would remove an important backstop for companies when they cannot get export financing from commercial banks on profitable terms, he said.

"It is brutally competitive for U.S. companies, large and small, when they compete overseas ... When the stop-gap measure, the last place you go (for financing), isn't there, that takes the wind out of your sails in terms of making export sales and supporting jobs at home," Hochberg said.

President Barack Obama has not nominated anyone to fill the soon-to-be vacant board spots occupied by Vice Chair Wanda Felton and Director Larry Walther.

Some conservative Republicans have a philosophical objection to the U.S. government running a bank that makes loans to help exporters and have been trying to shut it down for years.

The bank's "sole purpose is to dispense corporate welfare and political privileges to well-connected special interests. The Export-Import Bank ... is an example of everything that is wrong with Washington today," Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, said during debate on Hochberg's nomination.

But strong backing from business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers has kept Ex-Im alive through periodic attacks.

In the 2012 budget year, which ended last September, the bank provided a record $35.8 billion in direct loans, loan guarantees and other types of financing to help U.S. exporters make sales. That was the fourth consecutive record year for the bank, which has seen increased demand for its services in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, where Boeing builds most of its aircraft, defended the bank's role in supporting the United States' "export economy."

"We want U.S. products to be bought and sold in export markets all over the world ... If we fail to confirm Fred Hochberg for a second term as chairman of the Export-Import Bank, businesses across the United States will lose a key tool in job creation," Cantwell said.

Hochberg's nomination also became entangled in a broader Senate battle over several Obama nominations, with the majority Democrats accusing Republicans of abusing a procedural roadblock known as a filibuster to delay votes indefinitely.

A deal to resolve that dispute was reached on Tuesday, allowing a vote on Hochberg's nomination to proceed.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Vicki Allen, Jackie Frank and Dan Grebler)

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