Chamber Says It Will Vet Candidates on Fiscal Pragmatism

Thomas Donohue, the president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that while his organization respects the small-government instincts of Tea Party Republicans, he can’t support efforts to shut down the government or block increases to the debt ceiling.

“We do believe that to advance those interests by putting the country’s whole financial system at risk is not a good idea,” Donohue told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor today.

Donohue, who said he wasn’t singling out any particular group for criticism, added that his organization will be evaluating candidates in 2014 races based on their willingness to secure the nation’s long-term economic health and the broader interests of business. An understanding of the risks of a government default on its obligations is part of the assessment, he said.

“I can’t stress enough what a default on our foreign debt -- not on our private debt and not on the debt to the Federal Reserve or any of that -- but a real default would put us in a position that changed our position around the world that increased our interest costs.”

Cruz Criticized

Donohue also criticized Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who led the campaign to tie government funding and a raising of the debt ceiling to an effort to defund or delay key aspects of the Affordable Care Act. That demand, also embraced by House Republicans, helped trigger the 16-day partial government shutdown.

“If you’re going to rush to the net all the time, you better have a lot of movement to the left and right,” Donohue said of Cruz’s approach, adding that more ideological members of Congress often soften their stances over time. “He hasn’t shown he can do that yet.”

Asked by a reporter whether the Chamber’s message to Cruz was to “sit down and shut up,” Donohue said: “That’s one of the things we could work with him on.”

More broadly, Donohue said his group seeks to turn the congressional agenda back to broader goals of industry after the partisan clash that ended last week. A bipartisan deal, pushed first through the Senate, avoided default and ended a shutdown that began Oct. 1 that took $24 billion out of the U.S. economy.

Final Deal

The final deal establishes new deadlines in a broader debate over spending and taxes that began after Republicans took control of the House in 2011. It funds the government at Republican-backed spending levels through Jan. 15, 2014, and suspends the debt limit through Feb. 7. It also establishes budget negotiations with a Dec. 13 target -- setting up political combat over taxes and spending on programs including Social Security and Medicare.

Donohue said the Chamber’s top goal will be bipartisan agreement on an overhaul of the Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs, because a delay will cause “Draconian” changes to both that could hamper economic security and the economy.

He also said there is still a chance that lawmakers will advance some key goals of the Chamber in this Congress, which ends in early January, 2015.

Trade Pact

Donohue said he sees a strong likelihood for approval of fast-track trade negotiating authority in Congress, which could enable completion of trade deals including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he said. Officials from the 12 nations negotiating the pact say their goal is to have an agreement by the end of the year.

He also said he remains confident Congress will complete a comprehensive immigration-law rewrite by the end of 2014.

“We already have a bill out of the Senate, and there’s another year plus in this Congress.”

In its political efforts, the Chamber is a top donor in elections and Donohue made clear 2014 will be no exception.

The Chamber spent $35.7 million in the 2012 elections, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. In the 2010 midterm elections, the Chamber spent a total of $33.8 million.

The Chamber will focus its political efforts in the 2014 midterm elections on keeping a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, Donohue said. “It will be a long two years” if Democrats regain control of the House, he said.

Field Staff

Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president, said the Chamber will spend “tens of millions of dollars” in House and Senate races next year, although the group’s process of picking candidates won’t start until early next year. Josten, the Chamber’s top lobbyist, also said the Chamber is boosting its election-year field staff to 20 from 14 during the last election cycle.

The Chamber is the latest -- and arguably most prominent -- business voice expressing disquiet with the actions of Republican lawmakers aligned with the Tea Party movement.

Joe Murphy, chairman of the Ferco Aerospace Group in Franklin, Ohio, criticized the influence of Tea Party groups that have condemned Republican lawmakers who voted to reopen the government.

“People are fed up,” Murphy said. “They’ve gone so far right and so radical, people of my ilk say, ‘I don’t want to be associated with these people.’”

Gregory Bloom, president of Irvine, California-based Seal Science Inc., a federal contractor that manufactures gaskets and seals, said the shutdown is harming his company’s competitiveness. Bloom said a highly trained engineer who was a job candidate with his company was so concerned about future spending cuts that he decided to take a position elsewhere.

“I see that as one of the greatest risks to national security,” Bloom said. “Although I’m a conservative generally, our national security has to be decoupled. We have to maintain our security in protecting Americans and secondarily get out fiscal house in order. The two of them should not be linked.”

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