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U.S. Chamber of Commerce close to announcing leadership changes that will shape its lobbying strategy

Thomas Donohue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in 2014. (Jeffrey MacMillan )
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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is close to announcing changes in its leadership structure that will shape the group’s lobbying strategy as it prepares for a new Congress and president in a political climate that is increasingly hostile to the business community’s agenda.

The impending changes, expected to be announced in the coming weeks, will address how the powerful business lobby plans to fill the role of longtime chief lobbyist Bruce Josten, who is slated to retire at the end of the year, Chamber leaders said. It is unclear whether the changes will result in replacing Josten directly or will be one step in a broader reshuffling of top-level executives at the Chamber.

The move comes at an important juncture for the Chamber and the broader business lobby in Washington as populist movements in both parties have put in peril many of the top items on their agenda, including trade deals and immigration reform. For years, the business community could count on the strong support of Republicans, but that alliance has frayed in recent years with tea party Republicans complaining about corporate influence and “crony capitalism.”

“Members [of Congress] want to know what the Chamber says, but it isn’t going to dictate their vote on a regular basis like it once would have,” said Dan Holler of Heritage Action for America, one of several conservative groups that have emerged as a strong counterweight to the business lobby with congressional Republicans on issues such as renewing the Export-Import Bank’s charter.

How the Chamber decides to replace Josten will offer a clue as to what degree it will restructure its lobbying strategy and operations to deal with the changing political climate.

“The country is moving in a more populist mood, versus a what’s-good-for-business-is-good-for-America kind of thing,” said longtime lobbyist Rick Hohlt.

Chamber officials were tight-lipped about the upcoming announcement and the specifics of plans for its lobbying operation after Josten’s departure.

“Bruce is irreplaceable, but filling his job and his job functions is not,” said Tom Collamore, the Chamber’s senior vice president of communications and strategy.

The future of the Chamber’s president and chief executive Tom Donohue, 78, has also long piqued the interest of the influence industry, and even longtime allies and friends wonder whether or when he may start dialing back his involvement.

When asked about Donohue’s future, Collamore said the Chamber’s chief will continue steering the group’s strategy in the post-election “lame duck” session, the next Congress and the first 100 days of the new administration.

Succession planning at the Chamber has been the topic of much speculation on K Street for years — Josten and Donohue occupy two of the most coveted jobs downtown — but the rumor mill is buzzing extra loudly these days. To many in the influence industry, the thought of replacing Josten, a key player in Donohue’s transformation of the Chamber from a sleepy association to a lobbying and fundraising powerhouse, is almost unimaginable. Josten has led the Chamber’s lobbying arm for 22 years, and Donohue has helmed the group for 19.

“Tom is the Chamber outside Washington, Bruce is the Chamber inside Washington,” said one Republican lobbyist familiar with the Chamber’s workings who asked not to be named, to preserve relations with the organization. “Together they’re a phenomenal act.”

Suzanne Clark, executive vice president at the Chamber and a trusted adviser to Donohue, is said to be well positioned to take on a more senior role, according to former Chamber staffers and others familiar with its operations. Clark was a close aide to Donohue from 1997 to 2007, ultimately becoming chief operating officer overseeing the organization’s day-to-day operations. She left in 2007 to lead research and analysis firms and returned to the Chamber in 2014.

The challenges facing the Chamber have been on display over the past two years with regard to two important initiatives for the business community, the Export-Import Bank and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal (TPP), both of which have been curtailed or stalled despite well-funded efforts to push them through by business groups.

Although the Ex-Im Bank’s charter was renewed last year, the credit export agency has not been able to review large deals, the result of a lack of a quorum on the bank’s board of directors — a process that’s been halted by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). And the TPP, which the Chamber aggressively lobbied in favor of, is all but dead unless the next president revives it, and even Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who supported the pact as secretary of state, now opposes it.

The Chamber also lobbied Republicans hard on immigration, with Donohue saying the group would “pull out all stops” to push legislation through Congress in 2014, but the momentum died in the House and the political environment is now even less hospitable to moving overhaul legislation.

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The Chamber has in recent years adjusted its political strategy in recognition that some Republicans pose as big a threat to its agenda as Democrats.

In 2014, it broke with tradition by taking sides in GOP primary races, spending $12 million to back establishment candidates over tea party challengers. The strategy was successful, with the Chamber emerging undefeated in those races. They continued the strategy this year with some success, helping defeat a tea party firebrand, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, in the Kansas primary by backing his opponent, Roger Marshall.

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The Chamber is dedicating plenty of money this election cycle, spending $16.7 million on eight toss-up Senate races — including backing Sens. Rob Portman in Ohio and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania — more than 2.5 times what it spent on elections at this point in 2014, according to an August report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

It is also spending at least $1 million in ads to back Rep. Todd Young over Democratic former senator Evan Bayh in Indiana — despite Bayh’s pro-business record and previous gig for the Chamber giving speeches and appearing at events on its behalf after he left office in 2011.

One thing remains constant for the Chamber as it ponders its upcoming lobbying challenges — it has plenty of money to push its agenda.

It is the perennial top spender on K Street, shelling out nearly $85 million in 2015 to lobby the federal government.

Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.