WASHINGTON, May 20 (Reuters) - Republicans must get behind a push to scrap the U.S. Export-Import Bank when its charter comes up for renewal later this year to end handouts to big business, a senior lawmaker said on Tuesday.
"Today I call upon every Republican in Congress to let Ex-Im expire. Let the American taxpayers exit Ex-Im once and for all," Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"Its demise would clearly be one of the few achievable victories for the Main Street competitive economy left in this Congress. I believe it is a defining issue for our party and our movement."
Hensarling called for a reform of the tax code as well as phasing out subsidies to farmers and federal housing programs, but most of his comments were focused on the Ex-Im Bank.
His opposition could be a hurdle to renewing the bank's charter because the Texas lawmaker chairs the House Financial Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over Ex-Im and would normally be responsible for drafting legislation to extend its operations past the current expiry date of Sept. 30.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate should vote on extending the charter.
The Export-Import Bank was established 80 years ago to help finance exports of U.S. goods and services. It backed $37.4 billion in exports in 2013.
Although the bank had strong support in Congress when its charter was last up for renewal, its business supporters worry about the influence wielded by Hensarling, who has been touted as a possible candidate for a Republican leadership position after November's midterm elections.
He declined to directly address that issue on Tuesday, saying he did not rule out any options but would be happy to return as committee chairman.
Ex-Im, which returned a profit to Treasury last year, has urged Congress to extend its lending limit by $20 billion to $160 billion and allow it to operate for five more years.
Almost 20 percent of new lending in 2013 was to small businesses, although most support is for big projects such as aircraft, which account for nearly half outstanding loans.
Boeing Chief Operating Officer Dennis Muilenburg said last month the bank's financing helped offset subsidies and credit financing provided to foreign competitors.
Companies including Caterpillar and General Electric also rely on Ex-Im financing to make sales in export markets where commercial lending is scarce, and manufacturers warn that closing the bank would send jobs overseas.
"In a fiercely competitive global economy, Ex-Im Bank empowers American businesses to tackle new markets, grow through exports and create new U.S. jobs," Ex-Im Bank spokesman Matt Bevens said.
Right-leaning think tank American Action Forum recommended on Tuesday scaling back Ex-Im's lending cap and scrapping quotas on lending, such as a 10 percent share of new loans for renewable energy projects.
Reporting by Krista Hughes; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Mohammad Zargham