Chamber of Commerce losing battles against Obama

Now that President Obama has signed his financial overhaul bill into law, here's a look at who in Washington has played an important role in deciding its fate.
By Dan Eggen and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010

Over the past year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent nearly $3 million a week in opposition to President Obama's major agenda items, breaking all previous lobbying records and placing a political bet on the Republican Party.

But so far, it's not clear how well the gamble has paid off.

The Chamber's formidable lobbying prowess -- about $150 million spent since Obama took office -- did not stop passage of the administration's two signature achievements: the health-care overhaul and the Wall Street reform bill the president signed into law Wednesday. The nation's largest business group has lost battles over, among other things, student-loan legislation, credit-card reforms and a landmark measure that expands workers' rights to sue for equal pay.

The business lobby, which vows to spend $75 million or more on November's midterm election cycle, has also struggled to pick winners in this year's primaries. More than half a dozen Chamber-backed GOP candidates have gone down to defeat.

But the Chamber has had success in blocking other pieces of Democratic legislation or, in the case of health-care reform and financial regulation, shaping the final bills to the group's liking.

Thomas J. Collamore, the Chamber's senior vice president of communications, highlighted the group's efforts against a pro-union "card check" bill, cap-and-trade climate legislation and a proposed public insurance option.

"The Chamber's playing a critical role as the leading advocate for the business community in Washington," he said in a statement.

In addition to victories on union and environmental legislation, the Chamber has helped stall White House-backed legislation in the Senate that would require greater disclosure of political spending by corporations.

"They have in fact sought to defend and act from the principles which they believe in," said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and a longtime GOP lobbyist. "I think that's gutsy -- win, lose or draw. . . . My gosh, we are not here to wind up in the Rose Garden as trees and shrubs for signing ceremonies of legislation that we oppose."

While the Chamber historically has favored Republicans, it also has sought accommodation with Democrats in the past. But the group's relationship with the Obama administration has been increasingly tense. The Chamber's president and chief executive, Thomas J. Donohue, has railed against many of the administration's economic policies, and the group has nearly doubled its lobbying and political budget since 2008.

Deputy White House communications director Jen Psaki said the Obama administration still hopes to work with the group on matters on which they agree. But she added: "It is no secret that the primary focus of the Chamber of Commerce is raising money for Republican candidates."

The relationship between the administration and the Chamber was not always so fraught. The business group broke with, and angered, Republican leaders at the start of Obama's term by backing the $787 billion stimulus package.

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