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John Engler to Head Business Roundtable

The Business Roundtable has tapped former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) to run the lobbying outfit representing some of the nation’s most powerful corporate executives.

Engler, who has a reputation as a partisan GOPer, says the opportunity came up unexpectedly about a week ago.

“I look forward to continuing to help Americans and the U.S. economy by pressing for policies that increase employment, expand U.S. exports, enhance quality education and worker skills and lift unnecessary burdens on businesses, such as excessive taxation and regulation,” the incoming Business Roundtable president and CEO said in a Tuesday statement.

Engler, 62, has been president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers since 2004, when he left Electronic Data Systems, the information technology firm started by one-time presidential candidate Ross Perot.

The Michigan native was a three-term governor of his home state starting in 1991. He also was chairman of both the Republican Governors Association and the National Governors Association.

The Business Roundtable represents the CEOs of Bank of America Corp., Boeing Co., Caterpillar Inc., Dow Chemical Co. and other large corporations. It played a crucial role in last year’s health care debate and was viewed as an ally of the Obama White House on the issue.

Engler’s first day will be Jan. 15.

In a conference call with reporters, Engler said he expects the Business Roundtable to have a full legislative plate next year, when President Barack Obama is expected to make his case for reforming the tax code and other recommendations put forth in the White House deficit commission’s recent report. 

“I wish it were just one thing,” Engler said Tuesday morning.

The new BRT president also said fixing the education system will be a priority in 2011 for corporate executives, who are concerned about competing globally with “a workforce that needs much higher levels of skills.” He also brushed aside suggestions that he’s been too partisan in the past half-decade and atop the manufacturers’ group, which has been a reliable critic of Obama and Democratic policies.

“I’ve been a very bipartisan leader. … What I work on are issues here that manufacturers care about,” Engler said. “It really is a broader platform at the BRT, but the agenda is still about American competitiveness. We’re going to be focused on a jobs agenda.”

The naming of Engler comes after months of speculation as to who would lead the key White House ally. Former President John Castellani left the Business Roundtable last summer for the top job at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, where he replaced ex-Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

In recent weeks, the hunt for Castellani’s replacement has taken a number of unexpected turns, as once-prominent contenders bowed out of the race or took other gigs. Retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) told Roll Call on Dec. 10 that he was no longer interested in the job, even though he had been considered the frontrunner. And former top Citigroup Inc. lobbyist Nick Calio, who worked in both Bush administrations, was named president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America in late November.

Engler said Tuesday that he was about to re-up for another five years at NAM when the BRT reached out to him a week ago. He called his decision to leave “bittersweet.”

“This has moved fairly quickly, and I didn’t sit down with the BRT CEOs until last week,” he said. “I didn’t really start December thinking I’d end December making this announcement.”

NAM is expected to name Engler’s interim replacement on Tuesday afternoon.

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