Can Tom Delay Mend Fences?

A corporate critic is the new House business liaison

Sure, Bob Livingston is about to become Speaker of the House. But for business, the man to watch in Washington may be Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

A pugnacious, hard-line conservative who enjoys good relations with Republican colleagues and the Religious Right, DeLay went unchallenged for reelection to the No. 3 House GOP post. More important, he helped Livingston lock up the votes to become Speaker. As a reward, DeLay talked Livingston into giving him an added role: liaison to the business community.

The prospect of dealing with DeLay, who has often criticized business for fainthearted support of GOP causes, has some lobbyists rocking in their Gucci loafers. Formerly the head of an exterminating company, DeLay has close ties to small-business interests. But he has been sharply critical of Big Business and its lobbyists in Washington.

DeLay couldn't be reached for comment. But he has charged that corporate leaders don't put enough oomph--from manpower to money--behind Republican crusades for tax cuts and regulatory reform. And he's upset with trade associations and lobbying firms for hiring too many Democrats.

HERO STATUS. Friction between Big Business and the GOP leadership, which is more comfortable with Rotarians than the country-club set, is nothing new. But outgoing House GOP Conference Chair John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has been the liaison with K Street lobbyists, voiced his complaints quietly and in private. DeLay, by contrast, is known as "the Hammer" on Capitol Hill. He led the impeachment charge against President Clinton, repeatedly calling on him to resign. Business reps fear that strong-arm tactics aimed at bludgeoning them into submission could become a hallmark of DeLay's reign. Sighs one disheartened lobbyist: "This isn't going to be pretty."

Sources familiar with DeLay's thinking say he thinks that with the Republican's slim six-seat edge, closer coordination with business groups is vital to push through the GOP's 1999 legislative agenda--details of which have yet to emerge. "It will be easier to win votes if he can mobilize the grass roots of the business community," says John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former DeLay aide.

DeLay will insist that companies and trade groups get more directly involved in urging lawmakers to back pro-business bills. "If you go to him and say: `We really need this,' you're going to be expected to turn out your troops, not just send a letter from your CEO," says a lobbyist close to the Texan. Meanwhile, DeLay will keep the pressure on K Street to hire more Republicans and fatten GOP political war chests--a campaign that corporate reps think amounts to meddling in their internal affairs. Sniffs one: "DeLay can't say: `Don't hire Democrats,' and still expect us to go out and round up Democratic votes."

DeLay has his fans in business circles. His free-market views and opposition to regulatory enforcement have earned him hero status among small-business owners. The son of an oil-drilling contractor, DeLay led the struggle to deregulate the energy sector. That fizzled last year but could be revived in the next Congress. "Tom's philosophy of downsizing government and relying heavily on the market system is what many of us support, too," says Kenneth L. Lay, chairman and CEO of Houston energy giant Enron Corp.

Still, DeLay's fervor rankles with some corporate lobbyists. His 1995 campaign to weaken environmental protections with spending-bill riders "was overkill," says one business rep. It "probably set back the cause of regulatory reform for years." After the GOP's losses in 1996, DeLay backed off such extreme stances. But moderation isn't in his nature. That has business lobbyists bracing for whip-lash.

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