Jan. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans aggressive efforts to back “pro-business” candidates, some of whom will face Tea Party opponents in Republican primary elections this year, Tom Donohue, the group’s president, said today.
The U.S. Chamber, the nation’s largest business-lobbying group and a traditional supporter of Republicans, has in recent years squared off against lawmakers aligned with the Tea Party on issues including trade, U.S. Export-Import Bank reauthorization and the federal budget.
“In 2014, the chamber will work to protect and expand a pro-business majority in the House and advance our position and our influence in the Senate,” Donohue said in his annual State of American Business speech in Washington. “The business community understands what’s at stake.”
Donohue cited as a model his group’s successful backing in November of a candidate for an open Alabama congressional seat over a self-described Tea Party activist. Donohue said the organization will support candidates who favor trade, energy development and immigration reform.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television today, Donohue said the chamber’s disagreement isn’t with the Tea Party as it was “originally established” to promote small government. Rather, he said, it’s with politicians who have “hitched their trailer to the Tea Party wagon.” Those lawmakers, whom he declined to name, want to shut down the government and not pay U.S. debt, he said on BTV’s “Market Makers” with Stephanie Ruhle and Erik Schatzker.
His comments drew a frustrated response from some Tea Party groups which the chamber could find itself pitted against in coming elections -- signaling the growing divide on the political right.
The chamber’s “disconnect” with other Republican groups is its “pro-big-business agenda,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for smaller government and is affiliated with the Heritage Foundation think tank led by former South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint.
“If they just wanted to let the private sector thrive, the chamber would have no better friends than conservatives and Tea Party folks,” he said. “If they’re instead content to see business as usual in Washington, that’s where they will run into a ton of resistance not only from conservatives but also independents.”
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, another Washington group that often aligns with Tea Party candidates, said the chamber and the Tea Party could find agreement in supporting free-enterprise advocates.
“But it looks to me like the chamber is more interested in protecting incumbents and the special deals of some of their members, and that’s where we’re going to disagree in primaries,” Kibbe said.
One early show of the intra-Republican battle will be in Kentucky, where the chamber is backing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while such groups as the Senate Conservatives Fund -- which helped elect Texas Senator Ted Cruz in 2012 -- prefer businessman and first-time candidate Matt Bevin.
In December, House Speaker John Boehner lashed out at some of the Tea Party-related groups for pressuring lawmakers to oppose a budget deal.
“They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”
Illinois Republican Representative John Shimkus praised Boehner for his comments in a meeting with Bloomberg News reporters and editors in Washington today.
“The majority of the conference needed to hear John be a little more exercised about this,” he said. “And then our moderates really needed to hear some vocal support out of the leadership that their concerns were being heard.”
Shimkus, who doesn’t face a primary challenger, also said the “scorecards” some conservative groups, including Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, amass on lawmakers are less influential than even a few months ago. “A lot of people now don’t care as much,” he said.
“Who’s John Shimkus?” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller asked when a reporter sought his response. “If we’re so irrelevant, how come members spend so much time talking about us?”
Donohue said his group will work to ensure that lawmakers pass laws that the business group favors during an election year, when legislation is often difficult to pass.
“We hope to turn that assumption on its ear by turning the upcoming elections into a motivation for change,” he said.
“We’re determined to make 2014 the year that immigration reform is finally enacted,” he said. “The chamber will pull out all of the stops -- through grassroots lobbying, communications, politics, and partnerships with our friends in unions and faith-based organizations and law enforcement groups and others -- to get this job done.”
Donohue vowed to back trade-promotion authority, sought by President Barack Obama’s administration to smooth passage of agreements, and he said his group would work to fix what it deems to be flaws in the Affordable Care Act.
His speech encompassed issues including education, energy, entitlement spending, health care, regulations, tax policy and trade. Donohue said the U.S. has an “unrivaled opportunity” to become an energy exporter, and he told reporters afterward that he favors lifting the nation’s 1970s-era restrictions on crude oil exports.
He acknowledged that the chamber won’t be able “to get rid of” the health-care law, and instead pledged to pursue efforts such as repealing or altering the measure’s mandate for businesses to provide insurance.
While the U.S. business climate is “improving and our economy is gaining strength,” Donohue said, “misguided government policies have also slowed our growth and cost Americans a lot of jobs and a lot of raises.”
“This year we have an opportunity to turn the page,” he said.