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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.

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Relations quickly soured as the White House forged ahead with health-care reform, credit-card regulations and other Democratic proposals that were anathema to the Chamber. The group emerged as one of the leading combatants in the battle over health-care legislation; several major insurers contributed up to $20 million to the Chamber for anti-reform advertising.

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The group spent about $1 million on ads in support of the special Senate election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts and announced plans to spend $50 million -- now $75 million -- on the midterm elections. The vast majority of the group's spending is expected to favor Republicans.

And last week, the Chamber castigated White House economic policies in an open letter that said: "Instead of continuing their partnership with the business community and embracing proven ideas for job creation, they vilified industries while embarking on an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits and job-destroying regulations."

Within hours, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett fired back at "rhetoric that fails to acknowledge the important steps this administration has taken every single day to meet our shared objectives."

The administration, stung by what it considers unfair criticism, has pushed back against the anti-business allegations and reached out to other groups, such as the Business Roundtable. But the feud also helps the White House distance itself from corporate interests, blunting complaints from the left that the administration is too cozy with big business.

The Chamber's strategy, meanwhile, has been to link itself even more closely to the Republican Party, which could pay off if the GOP wins control of the House in the fall.

But the strategy has also revealed a rift between the Chamber and some business leaders who favor a more moderate course. Margot Dorfman, chief executive of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce -- an unrelated group that supported the Wall Street bill and other administration initiatives -- said the larger group "is championing the corporate giants" that provide a significant portion of its funding.

"We're interested in what's good for small business, and many times that's not what's good for big business," Dorfman said.

The national Chamber has suffered a series of high-profile defections over its opposition to climate-change legislation. Nike announced last fall that it was leaving the Chamber's board because of the issue, while Apple, Pacific Gas and Electric, and several other major companies quit the group altogether.

Despite such disagreements, the Chamber remains one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Washington. "The bottom line is, they've still got juice," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "They still have major influence on Capitol Hill."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.


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