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House GOP Leaders Try to Connect With CEOs

In an effort to find allies in the business community, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and other House GOP leaders will meet with the CEOs of several major U.S. companies Wednesday morning as Congress begins serious negotiations on the fiscal cliff.

The meeting comes as GOP leaders hope to shift the discussion from how to increase taxes — which has been Democrats’ focus — to where to cut spending and change entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

The meeting also signals another phase in the talks on Capitol Hill about how to avert the $500 billion in tax increases and spending cuts that, barring congressional action, will begin to take effect Jan. 2. Congressional leaders remain far apart publicly on how to reach a deal, while behind the scenes, staffers from both parties have been meeting to come closer to an agreement.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., organized the meeting as a counterbalance to a White House confab with CEOs earlier this month. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and other leaders will also attend.

The CEOs are part of a group called the Campaign to Fix the Debt, founded by former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., the co-chairmen of President Barack Obama’s deficit reduction commission. Bowles and Simpson guided the commission to recommend a broad outline to head off the debt, but it fell short of being adopted by the commission itself and was rejected by Congress.

The group is pushing the Bowles-Simpson framework as a starting point for long-term debt reduction and also supports changing entitlements and achieving a broad-based tax overhaul. Bowles will be at the Wednesday sit-down, along with Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, who is also part of the Campaign to Fix the Debt.

“People in both parties agree we need a ‘balanced approach’ to deal with our deficit and debt and help our economy create jobs,” Boehner said in a statement. “As we’ve seen in recent days, the American people support an approach that involves both major spending cuts and additional revenue via tax reform with lower tax rates. We look forward to talking to Mr. Bowles and other members of the coalition about their ideas to avert the ‘fiscal cliff’ without tax hikes that target small businesses and cost jobs.”

Although both parties have shunned it, the Bowles-Simpson framework is in accord with much of what Boehner has been preaching since the elections, and the group could be a welcome ally for Republicans as they hope to put pressure on Democrats to agree to entitlement changes and spending cuts instead of just talking about tax increases.

Notably, the Bowles-Simpson plan rejected an increase in tax rates in favor of a tax overhaul that would lower overall rates but take in revenue by eliminating deductions — the method Boehner and others in the GOP have been pushing of late as a way to increase taxes.

That plan may not pass at the White House, however. Obama has said that he will veto any deal that extends the 2001 and 2003 tax rates for individuals making more than $250,000 annually. All of those tax rates will expire Jan. 1.

Obama made that position clear to business executives earlier this month, telling them that he hopes to decouple middle-class tax rates from tax increases on the wealthy. But the president has also used vague language to give himself some wiggle room in negotiations with Congress.

In fact, the GOP’s meeting comes exactly two weeks after Obama met with 12 executives from some of the nation’s largest companies. Two of those CEOs — Honeywell’s David Cote and Aetna’s Mark Bertolini — will also be at the meeting with GOP leaders Wednesday.

The Capitol Hill meeting will also include some new faces. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Doug Oberhelman of Caterpillar, Thomas Wilson of Allstate and Gregg Sherrill of Tenneco will also join the group, as will Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, an airline trade organization.

This will be the second time in as many months that Boehner meets with Bowles, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Bowles and former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., another member of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, requested and received a meeting with Boehner in September to speak about the fiscal cliff.

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