With Republican as leader, Obama-friendly Business Roundtable may become less so

President Obama weathered Democratic losses this fall but also spent time passing out candy and visiting "The Daily Show."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 7:02 PM

The Business Roundtable, which has served as one of the Obama administration's few allies in the business community in the past, signaled a possible change of course Tuesday by naming a well-known Republican as its president.

Former Michigan governor John Engler (R), who has headed the National Association of Manufacturers for the past six years, will begin leading the Business Roundtable in January, officials said. He takes over from John Castellani, who was recently named to head another powerful lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

The roundtable, one of Washington's most influential business groups, has spent more than $18 million on lobbying since the start of the Obama administration, according to disclosure records. Unlike many major trade groups, the CEOs' association does not have a political action committee.

Engler's appointment suggests a shift in emphasis for the Business Roundtable, which represents top corporate executives and had parted ways with the Chamber of Commerce and other major business groups by supporting President Obama's health-care overhaul legislation. The group's relations with the White House have soured in recent months over proposed greenhouse-gas rules, financial regulations and other issues.

In a conference call Tuesday with reporters, Engler minimized his GOP affiliation and said he has a long track record of working across party lines.

"I haven't been a Republican governor for eight years," Engler said. "I've been a very bipartisan leader of the National Association of Manufacturers."

Engler, who served as governor of blue-state Michigan from 1991 to 2003, said the Business Roundtable's emphasis next year would be advocating policies to create jobs and lower the unemployment rate. "Our focus is all about economic competitiveness," he said.

Ivan G. Seidenberg, the chief executive of Verizon Communications and chairman of the Business Roundtable, said in a statement that Engler was "respected in Washington on both sides of the aisle."

"As a governor, John forged progressive public policy," Seidenberg said. "As the NAM's president, he has been an effective, articulate spokesman for manufacturing. He has championed U.S. competitiveness around the world - often working arm-in-arm with the Business Roundtable - and has tirelessly advocated policies that create jobs in the U.S."

Engler's move to the CEOs' group was sudden. He said he was first approached by the roundtable last week as he was finalizing negotiations for another stint as head of the manufacturers' group.

At NAM, Engler was paid just over $1 million in 2008, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service. The Business Roundtable, by contrast, paid Castellani $4.4 million that year, tax records show.

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