* Government bank's charter expires May 31
* Some conservative Republicans oppose renewal
* White House wants bank credit ceiling raised
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) - Former President Bill Clinton on Thursday urged Congress to put aside partisan differences and reauthorize the nearly 80-year-old U.S. Export-Import Bank, which he said was key to helping the United States expand job-creating exports.
The Eximbank, which has its roots in the Great Depression-era administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, is facing an uncertain future because of opposition from some conservative Republicans.
"So many of our competitors aggressively use subsidized capital to promote their exports," Clinton said in a speech to a packed room of corporate executives at the government export credit agency's annual meeting. "As a practical matter, you either meet the competition or you get beat."
The Eximbank provides direct loans and loan guarantees to help Boeing, General Electric, Caterpillar and many other big and small manufacturers make sales in markets too risky for private banks.
Opponents say it is an unnecessary government intrusion in the market and puts taxpayer funds at risk. Supporters say it is conservatively run, has experienced very few defaults and makes money for the government.
Clinton said he feared renewal of the bank's charter, which expires May 31, was becoming a "political football."
"Support for the Eximbank used to be a bipartisan deal and I hope it will be again," Clinton said.
He argued the United States was well positioned to become a more export-oriented economy and said terminating the Eximbank would amount to "unilateral disarmament."
Clinton also called for the United States to negotiate more free trade agreements and appeared to criticize President Barack Obama's administration for taking nearly two years to win approval of deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
"There's only so slow you can go until you make the perfect the enemy of the good," he said.
The Eximbank has operated at record levels in recent years, as other sources of international trade finance remain tight in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Bank officials say it might have to stop making loans before its charter expires on May 31 because it is rapidly nearing its $100 billion credit exposure cap.
The Obama administration is pushing for a four-year reauthorization of the bank with the credit cap raised to $140 billion. A Republican leadership proposal in the U.S. House of Representative would renew it for only a year and raise the credit cap to $113 billion.
The conservative group Club for Growth, which is influential with many Tea Party members of the Republican party, has blasted the bank as "corporate welfare" and mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to end its existence.
Delta Air Lines has raised concerns about the fairness of taxpayer-based loans to help Boeing. Delta says it is hurt by bank financing that allows foreign carriers to buy Boeing planes at lower interest rates than Delta itself can get in the commercial market.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, told the annual meeting the White House hoped a deal could be reached with Republicans to renew the bank's charter.
"The business community is counting on members of Congress to join the president to work together and put aside partisan differences," Jarrett told the group.
Eximbank President Fred Hochberg said the bank was needed because foreign export credit agencies are "working to expand their footprint" and increase their financing.
"This is the world we live in. And we've got to compete in the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be," Hochberg said. "However, some in Congress don't accept this. They want us to move in the opposite direction."