May 21, 2012 – 11:42 p.m.

U.S. Chamber Shrugs Off Its Conflicts With Conservatives

Some friction over various economic issues doesn’t seem to be threatening the working relationship between the business community and tea party-allied Republicans as the 2012 election approaches.

“They are not crazies,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue said at a Monday roundtable of the often-rebellious cadre of mostly freshmen Republicans. “We understand we’re going to get some long-term benefit here.”

The U.S. Chamber played a major role in getting many freshman Republicans elected in 2010, helping return the House to GOP control by spending $33 million on congressional races. That money went overwhelmingly to GOP candidates, and it made the Chamber one of the most important financial backers of conservative candidates — although the business lobby now faces competition from a host of well-funded Super PACs.

But many of those new members have given the business community heartburn on a range of issues that have been fundamental priorities for traditional pro-business Republicans. Those include issues such as funding for highways and transit programs, backing for the Export-Import Bank and other measures that have faced opposition from the Club for Growth and like-minded “free-market” groups.

And remember that debate over raising the debt ceiling last summer? At the time, Donohue told an Atlanta business group that the Chamber would “get rid of” Republicans who voted against the debt ceiling increase. The Chamber said the comment was a joke, but some of those freshmen took exception.

But it seems the benefits outweigh the downside.

After all, the Republican majority in the House still sides with the Chamber on most major issues, like avoiding tax increases and trying to prevent or roll back regulations. And as lawmakers prepare for what Donohue calls “a more important election,” whatever differences may come out on isolated issues won’t threaten the Chamber’s campaign support for congressional Republicans.

The Chamber doesn’t get involved in presidential races.

Most recently, 93 House Republicans voted against a reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank after a monthslong standoff over the agency, which is rarely a source of great controversy. While the bank has drawn barbs over what conservative groups call its role as a provider of “corporate welfare,” the level of opposition this year took the Chamber and other business groups by surprise and forced them to pour more energy into ensuring a renewal, which President Obama signed into law last week.

It also provided Democrats an opportunity to try to drive a wedge between the business community and congressional Republicans.

Donohue said many Republicans “gave us something to think about” on the Ex-Im Bank.

Still, he sees the episode as the result of conservatives “looking around for issues” to take a stand on rather than a core concern for many of the lawmakers who opposed the reauthorization. Ex-Im was on the margins, for instance, compared with the debt ceiling. And there’s plenty of leeway on the myriad issues the business world has before Congress. At the Monday roundtable sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Donohue noted the Chamber looks at broad voting patterns, not specific votes. “We never go after a Republican or a Democrat for a vote,” he said.

This fall, the Chamber is focusing its resources on 10 or 12 competitive Senate races and a variety of House races, officials said. “There are a lot of races in the House I’m worried about,” Donohue said.