Business groups stand by Boehner, plot against tea party

Here are the key moments from the last day before the debt-ceiling deadline, when the Senate and House came together to pass a deal to reopen the government. (The Washington Post)

Despite presiding over a chamber that nearly drove the country to a debt default, John A. Boehner still has the enduring support of a group that would have been most harmed by that event: the business community.

Rather than revisit their strategy of supporting Republicans after this week’s near-disaster, influential organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are standing behind Boehner. More important, Boehner’s friends in the business community are getting ready to take sides in a few Republican primary races against tea party candidates in Michigan, Idaho and Alabama who could cause the House speaker more trouble.

Boehner, who was once president of a small plastics company in Ohio, has spent much of his career burnishing the GOP’s identity as the party of business, building deep relationships since the 1990s with groups like the U.S. Chamber by providing legislative favors and easy access through countless receptions and rounds of golf.

In return, business groups have helped Boehner and his counterparts in the Senate raise millions of dollars to put Republicans in office, including the 2010 election of tea party lawmakers who have now roiled the GOP.

It’s this decades-long relationship that helps explain why even as one wing of the Republican Party threatened to drive the economy off a cliff, the business community has largely stuck by its party — and its man, Boehner. These lobbyists say they are worried that Boehner has a shaky hold over his caucus.

The top 20 contributors to Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

“I don’t think [lobbyists] are going to push John to commit suicide as a political leader,” said John Motley, a longtime lobbyist and former vice president of legislative affairs at the National Federation of Independent Business. “It’s more important to have him there than to not have him there.”

Now that the shutdown and debt-ceiling fight have exposed a rift in the Republican Party, lines are being drawn in the battle for control: On one side, there is Boehner and his circle of powerful business allies. On the other, tea party lawmakers and activist groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth.

“I don’t know of anybody in the business community who takes the side of the Taliban minority,” said Dirk Van Dongen, longtime chief lobbyist for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, who has known Boehner since the lawmaker’s first election.

In the hallways of the country’s leading trade associations, there is talk about taking on tea party Republicans in at least three states.

The first is Michigan, where Rep. Justin Amash, who had been challenging Boehner during the debt-ceiling fight, is facing a possible challenge from a business-backed candidate. Business lobbyists also talk about funding a challenge to another tea-party-backed Republican incumbent, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio.

Another area for possible combat occurs in a special election next month in the 1st District of Alabama, where former state senator Bradley Byrne, a self-described business-oriented Republican, faces off against Dean Young, a tea party-endorsed candidate who says he’s “against homosexuals pretending that they are married.”

The fourth possible race is in Idaho, where business groups are talking of lending support to Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican incumbent. Simpson faces a tea party challenger who has pushed the eight-term House veteran to support the “defund Obamacare” strategy adopted by the tea party.

A long alliance

There’s a conventional view that business groups have allied themselves with Republicans because of their shared interests in low taxes and reduced regulation. But the connection runs deeper.

Republican lawmakers such as Boehner and a number of lobbyists have been in the trenches together through arduous political battles dating to the Clinton-era health-care fight.

Prior to the 1990s, groups like the U.S. Chamber were chummy with many Democrats and not considered an arm of the Republican Party, as Democrats charge today. But Boehner and the fight over President Bill Clinton’s health-care reform plan helped change that.

Back then, the leadership of the U.S. Chamber was talking with the Clinton White House about supporting the president’s plan. But Boehner and other GOP legislators and conservative lobbyists organized a grass-roots effort to halt that alliance. They enlisted local Chamber of Commerce affiliates to pressure the national organization to change its position or lose their support and dollars.

The tactics worked. The U.S. Chamber’s top people later left and were replaced by current leaders, such as President Tom Donohue and the influential lobbyist Bruce Josten. Since then, the U.S. Chamber has been even more closely tied to the GOP, providing more aggressive financial support to Republican candidates.

In 1996, the year before Donohue took over the organization, 63 percent of its political action committee contributions went to Republican congressional candidates, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. The percentage going to Republicans jumped to 83 percent during the 2010 elections, which swept several tea party candidates into office.

Boehner’s current troubles, though, are partly of the business community’s making. The U.S. Chamber and other business groups participated in conservative strategy sessions in 2010. They celebrated when the Republicans took over the House.

“Americans sent a powerful message to Washington,” Donohue said the morning after the elections. “Congress will have another opportunity to make restoring economic growth its top priority and, with more balance, they will have to work on a bipartisan basis to achieve it.”

Faith in the speaker

Ultimately, Boehner had to rely on bipartisan support to avoid a likely default on the debt. But instead of this nail-biting episode causing a split between business lobbyists and their GOP allies, it might have drawn them even closer as they seek to limit the influence of tea party candidates who have little regard for corporate interests.

After helping to vault Boehner into the speaker role following the 2010 elections, these lobbyists are eager to keep him in charge of the House.

“He’s been able to raise an incredible amount of money, because people want to invest in John as a reasonable leader and as a guy who gets how the world works in a broader sense, understands business and makes them successful,” said a Republican lobbyist who is close to Boehner and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitive relationships on Capitol Hill. “I don’t think there’s any sense of regret in investing in John or investing in Republicans.”

The business community’s relationship with Boehner also helps to explain why throughout the run-up to a possible debt default — an event that threatened to wreck financial markets — there was a puzzling calm among the country’s most powerful business and Wall Street lobbyists.

Josten, chief lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber, had faith that Boehner would not permit the country to default on its debt. “Speaker Boehner will always put the country first, he understands the burdens and penalty of leadership,” Josten said before the vote.

At the Financial Services Roundtable, an organization that represents big investment houses that arguably had the most at stake this week, the mood was surprisingly steady. The reason, says Scott Talbott, senior vice president for policy, “is John Boehner.”

Talbott, who has known Boehner for more than a decade, said the speaker “has a long history of being a straight shooter.”

Other business lobbyists who are close to Boehner also say they never doubted him.

At the end of the day, Van Dongen said he did not believe that Boehner would let the country default. “He is too sane, too responsible and understands as anybody who is rational the consequences of letting that occur,” the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors lobbyist said.

But Boehner and his friends in the business lobbying world had seen a moment like this before.

In 1998, when the Republican leadership in the House was in turmoil after losing a number of seats, Boehner was ousted as chairman of the House Republican Conference. Motley says Boehner called his friends in the business community together and told them he wasn’t going anywhere. He began raising record sums of money to strengthen the Republican majority. Twelve years later, Boehner was speaker.

“The business community stayed with John when he fell from grace,” Motley said. “And John has stayed with the business community.”

Jia Lynn Yang is a staff writer at The Washington Post who covers policy and business. Before joining the Post, she worked at Fortune magazine.
Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.
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