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President Donald Trump visited Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus for the debut of the company's 787-10 Dreamliner in February. Republicans, including those in South Carolina, are wrestling over the president's choice to head the Export-Import Bank, which helps the aircraft maker. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

Gov. Henry McMaster has a joke he often makes about South Carolina's economy as he travels around the state: How do you spell ports? M-O-N-E-Y.

As manufacturing businesses in South Carolina that benefit from those ports watched a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing  Wednesday for the next leader of the Export-Import Bank, they could have created their own version of the line: How do you spell the name of Trump's nominee, Scott Garrett? T-R-O-U-B-L-E.

A former New Jersey GOP congressman, Garrett was once among the loudest critics of the Ex-Im Bank, which he argued "embodies the corruption of the free enterprise system" and is a prime example of "corporate welfare."

In his confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Banking Committee, Garrett attempted to convince senators that he has come around on the federal financing agency that sells loans and insurance to help foreign companies buy U.S. goods, telling them he now supports its existence.

"Let me be crystal clear on this point: If I am confirmed, the Export-Import bank will continue to fully operate, point blank,” he said. "It will continue to approve the many loans that support our American manufacturers’ ability to export their products."

The battle over Garrett's confirmation re-exposes a political quandary for South Carolina conservatives torn between ideological orthodoxy against federal programs that critics call wasteful, and efforts to secure jobs for the Palmetto State.

Under the new administration, the decision also puts Republicans between the rock of crossing Trump's agenda and the hard place of angering powerful companies in their home state.

Asked if he has confidence in an Ex-Im skeptic like Garrett taking over the reins, McMaster turned the question into a different one — emblematic of the needle South Carolina Republicans are trying to thread.

"I have confidence in President Donald Trump," said McMaster, an early supporter of Trump's presidential bid last year, "and I am confident that whomever takes that position will be someone who understands fully the importance of that bank and the importance of that bank to South Carolina."

Bank of Boeing

Given the political nature of the debate, why should the Ex-Im Bank matter to South Carolina voters? For Ted Pitts, president of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, that's an easy one: J-O-B-S.

Boeing, which has a plant in North Charleston, has long been its top customer, a fact that has led critics to deride it as little more than "the Bank of Boeing."

But Ex-Im supporters note that Boeing is just one of 72 companies in South Carolina alone that have received some support from the 83-year-old bank, boosting about 17,000 jobs in the state.

"It has a direct impact from the Lowcounty up to the foothills, with Sage Automotive and BMW and others that use it," said Pitts, a former Republican legislator from Lexington. "Ex-Im has a direct tie to South Carolina jobs, and that's why we think it's so important for our two United States senators to look at former Congressman Garrett's record."

Most other developed countries have their own version of an Ex-Im Bank, and business advocates contend that unilaterally disarming would put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.

Though the bank was re-authorized in December 2015 after months of contentious feuding in Congress, the bank has not been fully functional in more than two years because of continued vacancies among the board of directors. That has shut the bank off to deals valued at more than $10 million.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned from the get-go that Garrett would not get confirmed if he's only looking to be a "Trojan horse" and further diminish the bank's operation from the inside.

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Sen. Tim Scott and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. File/Shealah Craighead/White House/Provided

On the banking committee, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has struck an uneasy tone throughout the process and remained undecided after the hearing. He has been the target of ads from business groups for months urging him to oppose Garrett's nomination.

While Scott said he does want a "reform-minded" chairman, he also wants to "ensure the Bank is fully operational."

"Mr. Garrett's answers this past week raised as many questions as they answered because of the diametrically opposite position he now has compared to his opinion when he served in Congress," Scott said in a statement to The Post and Courier. "I will continue to seek the much-needed clarity that will help me make a decision."

Conservative target

Despite the bank's small footprint in the grand scale of the federal government, it has become a target of conservative ire in recent years, setting up several dramatic showdowns in Congress.

The chief executive of the conservative Heritage Action group penned a letter to the committee urging them to "ignore pressure from the business community" regarding Garrett.

Heritage points to the bank as a component of the "swamp" that Trump vowed to drain en route to the White House. Business groups focus on a different Trump campaign promise — creating jobs — as the central issue at play.

As a South Carolina congressman, former Rep. Mick Mulvaney teamed up with like-minded fiscal hawks like Garrett and Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, to try to shut it down.

Now Trump's budget director, Mulvaney has since conceded that the bank "is going to continue to exist" under the Trump administration. But he told CNBC his change of heart came because the president committed to putting "reformers" in the bank's leadership.

Business groups remain unconvinced. National Association of Manufactuers President Jay Timmons called Garrett's testimony "a pathetic attempt to convince senators and manufacturing workers that he is a reformer, not a destroyer." 

Pitts said he's bewildered that one of the few federal agencies that makes a profit has been such a consistent focus of conservative activists.

"It really is troubling that some have wanted to make it into a political football or some litmus test, when in reality it's a conservative approach to creating jobs in the U.S.," he said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.