Tim Scott weighs defying GOP, opposing Trump Ex-Im Bank nominee

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., left, and Dean Heller, R-Nev., talk during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearin.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., left, and Dean Heller, R-Nev., talk during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearin. AP

Sen. Tim Scott isn’t used to being a problem for the White House, but he could learn soon what that’s like.

The South Carolina Republican, after years of being a reliable GOP team player, is weighing whether to oppose one of Donald Trump’s nominees.

Scott is considering voting against Scott Garrett to lead the Export-Import Bank, an appointment that has enormous repercussions for the Palmetto State.

The Senate Banking Committee will meet Nov. 1 to consider Garrett’s nomination, and Scott, a committee member, is getting an earful from interests on all sides of the debate.

In the nearly 10-month-old Trump administration, Scott hasn’t hesitated to speak out when he’s disagreed with the president. Scott’s criticisms of Trump’s response to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this summer led to a sit-down meeting at the White House to directly confront the president on issues of race.

In an interview with McClatchy, Scott actually suggested that wading into the public discourse on a controversy such as Charlottesville was actually a bit easier than opposing a presidential nominee, something he hasn’t done yet.

“It might be easier (to contradict the president on race) because I feel compelled to do so,” Scott, the Senate’s only black Republican, explained, “whereas with nominees, the president deserves his nominees for the most part.”

Still, Scott reflected, “There are no free ‘no’ votes, to be sure.”

He might be about to discover what a “no” vote means in the age of Trump, who isn’t afraid to come after members of his own party who try to thwart his agenda. The senator could also find himself an enemy of conservative activists seeking to punish Republicans who don’t support the president, though Scott isn’t up for reelection until 2022.

The Ex-Im Bank provides loan guarantees to American companies selling goods to foreign customers. The bank is critical to South Carolina’s economy, as major manufacturing giants such as Boeing, General Electric and others have plants in the state.

Garrett was a fierce opponent of the Ex-Im Bank when he was a Republican congressman from New Jersey. He even helped lead the fight to block reauthorization of the federal agency for several months, calling it tantamount to corporate welfare.

During the time the bank was shuttered in early 2015, GE was forced to shift roughly 400 jobs to France, with some of those coming from South Carolina’s plant in Greenville.

After the bank was reauthorized at the end of 2015, some Senate Republicans still refused throughout 2016 to advance nominees to allow the Ex-Im Bank board to operate at full capacity to approve and finance loans.

Boeing, which has a major presence in North Charleston, did not immediately see business suffer, with international customers able to obtain bridge financing to purchase the company’s products. But Kate Bernard, a Boeing spokeswoman, said that was not a sustainable, long-term business model.

“There is an uncertainty that is looming large right now,” she said recently.

The Senate Banking Committee is now scheduled to consider a whole slate of Ex-Im Bank nominees on Nov. 1, with Garrett’s nomination the most high-profile and contentious.

Supporters of the bank wonder what Trump’s motivation might be for nominating someone with a history of working to undermine the institution, while the bank’s detractors think Trump is sending a signal he wants the agency to be weaker, which they like.

Trump himself has sent mixed signals as to whether he supports the Ex-Im Bank. He visited the Boeing plant in North Charleston earlier this year in what was interpreted as an endorsement of the institution’s role in promoting American business, but has also said the bank is in need of major changes — though he has not elaborated on what those changes might be, nor has Garrett.

Scott conceded in August that he was “extremely concerned” about Garrett’s record.

“Absent a clear public statement that ensures he will not dismantle the bank, I will not support his nomination for Ex-Im chairman,” Scott said in a statement.

Nearly three months later, with the committee hearing looming, Scott was appearing to soften slightly on his stance.

“I think (Garrett’s) moving in the right direction,” he told McClatchy. “He and I both share that there are ways to improve operations of the bank in ways that I think are helpful and necessary. So I’m looking forward to asking him additional questions as it relates to the definition of improving the operations … I will weigh his comments heavily and come to a decision.”

Scott’s spokesman, Sean Smith, confirmed that the senator received a letter from Garrett this week, which might have addressed some of the outstanding concerns. Smith did not describe what the memo entailed, but did say that Scott would be using the letter during his questioning of Garrett at the upcoming hearing.

Meanwhile, powerful industry groups in favor of the Ex-Im Bank and opposed to Garrett have seized on Scott’s bolder statements in hopes of pushing the senator over to their side.

The National Association of Manufacturers in particular sees Scott as one of the most critical votes among the 12 committee Republicans because of his criticisms of Garrett and his unique position representing a state that depends on the Ex-Im Bank’s functionality.

NAM ran online and radio ads in South Carolina in August urging Scott and the state’s other Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, to oppose Garrett’s nomination. Graham has expressed reservations about Garrett, at one point suggesting the Trump administration should find a different candidate.

It’s likely that NAM will revise that ad campaign and hold events targeting South Carolina in the days and weeks ahead.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also urging Scott to oppose Garrett. So, too, is the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which sent Scott a letter on Friday in an 11th-hour power play.

At the same time, conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America, Club for Growth and the American Conservative Union see support for Garrett as a test of conservative lawmakers’ credentials, their ability to hold strong against “special interests” and commitment to “draining the swamp.”

Scott acknowledged receiving calls from “everybody,” locally and nationally, for and against Garrett, and that “personal attacks” would be lodged against him no matter how he votes.

“I will be making the best decision for the country,” he said.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain