By Krista Hughes
WASHINGTON, March 19 (Reuters) - A bipartisan plan to save the U.S. Export-Import Bank seeks to extend the bank's term until 2019, increase lending to small businesses and overturn limits on coal-fired power plants projects, according to documents released on Thursday.
The bill seeks a middle ground between some conservatives who want to close the export credit agency, other Republicans who want reforms and many Democrats who would prefer a longer-term mandate and an expansion of the bank's activities.
"We have been playing chicken with reauthorization for far too long, we need to get it done," said Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, one of four Democratic and four Republican senators introducing the bill.
The Senate bill may give supporters of Ex-Im, which provides support for U.S. exporters and the buyers of U.S. goods, leverage to push ahead with extending the bank's mandate, which must be renewed before June 30 to keep the bank open.
Documents seen by Reuters show the bill would cut the bank's lending cap to $135 billion, from $140 billion, and boost the share of small business support to 25 percent from 20 percent.
It would also ban "discrimination" based on industry - wording that a Democratic aide said would end restrictions put in place by the Obama administration limiting the bank's financing for coal-fired plants to buyers in only the world's poorest countries.
The treatment of coal is sensitive for Democrats, and could be a deal breaker for some members. Senator Joe Manchin, a co-sponsor and Democrat from the coal-producing state of West Virginia, argues the change would help preserve jobs in the struggling industry.
The other supporters are Democrats Joe Donnelly and Mark Warner and Republicans Mark Kirk, Lindsey Graham, Roy Blunt and Kelly Ayotte.
Ex-Im bills introduced in the House of Representative have support from more than half that chamber's lawmakers, but face opposition from Jeb Hensarling, a Republican who chairs the House committee responsible for the bank and is influential in determining which bills come up for a vote.
Critics charge that Ex-Im's support for overseas buyers of U.S. goods, such as Boeing Co planes, gives foreign firms an edge over U.S. competitors.
The Senate bill includes some reforms suggested in the House, including regular reviews of fraud controls and the appointment of a chief ethics officer.
Ex-Im spokesman Matthew Bevens said the legislation was in line with the bipartisan support the bank had always enjoyed.
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