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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An internal White House conflict over the future of the U.S. Export-Import Bank is keeping the government trade lender hobbled in the face of China's massive state export finance offensive, EXIM's acting chairman said.
Charles "CJ" Hall told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross supports restoring the bank's full lending powers as part of President Donald Trump's push to boost U.S. exports and manufacturing jobs.
He said there also were statements from several lawmakers that Trump himself supports EXIM's mission, but the same conservative Republican "ideologues" who tried to close the bank in 2015 are standing in the way of nominating new board members.
"There is a debate in the administration between differing views on EXIM Bank. I would characterize that debate in its simplest form as between pragmatists and ideologues," Hall said.
Conservative Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, have fought for years to revoke EXIM's charter, charging that it provides unnecessary "corporate welfare" to giant corporations such as Boeing Co (BA.N), General Electric Co (GE.N) and Caterpillar Inc (CAT.N).
Its charter was allowed to expire in 2015, but was restored five months later after a bitter fight in Congress. But with only two of five board seats filled and Obama nominees blocked last year, its loans and guarantees are capped at $10 million, preventing it from financing large exports such as commercial aircraft and power turbines.
Hall, an Obama administration appointee who was asked to stay on for six months as Trump took office in January, was unusually candid about the split for an executive agency chief.
"Secretary Ross is one of the pragmatists" who supports restoring EXIM's full powers, Hall said.
"In terms of identifying the others, I would say it's more the Heritage Foundation point of view. And we know there are a lot of people from the Heritage Foundation who are salted around the Executive Office of the President, both in the White House and the Office of Management and Budget."
Dan Holler, a spokesman for the foundation's political arm, Heritage Action for America, said that EXIM too often helps foreign competitors, citing Mexico's state oil company Pemex, which benefited from $7 billion in EXIM financing for U.S. exports between 2007 and 2013.
"Unless Secretary Ross can demonstrate the bank actually creates jobs in America, there is really no argument for moving forward," Holler said.
Hall said the bank fits into Trump's trade "sweet-spot" to boost U.S. exports and compete more effectively with China.
In 2015, China's three export credit agencies provided $576 billion in total financing and guarantees, while a curtailed EXIM did only $10.6 billion. Hall noted that in 2014 and 2015, the Chinese agencies provided more financing than EXIM has in its entire 83-year history.
Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Andrea Ricci