By Jia Lynn Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 10:37 PM
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce signaled Tuesday that its rift with the administration is beginning to ease, just three months after bitterly sparring with the White House during midterm campaigns.
In a speech at the Chamber's headquarters, directly across the street from the White House, Tom Donohue, the group's president, said disagreements with the administration have "never been personal."
He noted "a new tone" at the White House and praised President Obama's selection of William Daley as his new chief of staff, calling him "a real pro."
Donohue nonetheless struck a combative note as he vowed to fight for the Chamber's policy goals this year, which include expanding trade, lowering the federal deficit and curbing regulations it thinks are excessive.
"We will not allow the business community to be intimidated, and we will use every tool at our disposal to challenge those who try to silence our voice," said Donohue, referring to Democrats' attempts to force the Chamber, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, to reveal its donors.
The record level of campaign giving by the Chamber in the last midterm cycle became the subject of vitriolic feuding with the White House. Obama and other Democrats even accused the Chamber of accepting money from foreign donors, which the group vehemently denied.
In the aftermath of midterm election losses, the administration has signaled that it wants to repair relations with corporate America, which the president has called a key partner as he tries to combat stubbornly high unemployment still hovering above 9 percent.
The decision to bring in Daley, whose resume is packed with experience in the corporate world, has been well received by members of the business community, who have complained that the White House has lacked staff members who are sensitive to the needs of industry.
As both sides seek a detente, the president has agreed to speak at the Chamber early next month. The administration last month invited several chief executives of major U.S. companies, including Google, General Electric and American Express, to discuss policy with the president - chiefly, how to get the economy growing faster. U.S. companies are sitting on record levels of cash, hesitant to hire more workers as they wait for the economic recovery to pick up more speed.
In his speech, Donohue pointed to optimistic projections by the Chamber that the economy will grow 3.2 percent in 2011 and create 2.4 to 2.6 million net new jobs by the end of the year.
Yet the Chamber also warned that businesses were up against a "regulatory tsunami" because of new rules on health care and Wall Street as well as efforts at federal agencies to aid unions - all provisions that have been pushed by the administration. Donohue warned that regulatory agencies were severely understaffed given the scope of their responsibilities.
He added that the wave of new regulations poses "the single biggest challenge to jobs, our global competitiveness and the future of American enterprise."
The union-backed watchdog group, U.S. Chamber Watch, shot back on Tuesday.
"The U.S. Chamber's campaign against so-called 'excessive' regulations, in the last few years alone, has brought us: 29 deaths in the worst mining collapse in decades, the worst oil spill in environmental history, and the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression," said Christy Setzer, spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber Watch.
The Chamber on Tuesday also called on lawmakers to lower the corporate tax rate, an idea Obama has said he is willing to explore so long as any reform effort also eliminates some industry loopholes.
"We'll support the new House leadership on many occasions, and we'll work with Democratic legislators as well," Donohue said. "But no one should expect the Chamber to march in lock step with anyone."