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Businesses Bet K Street Can Sway Debate

The lobbying surrounding the fiscal cliff has drawn corporate giants such as Caterpillar Inc. and small enterprises including sausage-maker Glier’s Meats in Covington, Ky., to K Street in an effort to influence the outcome.

There’s no doubt the legislative drama and high-level deal-making has been a boost to lobby firms’ bottom lines. CEOs have traipsed between the Hill and the White House, their lobbyists in tow. And nearly every trade association and union has pumped out blog posts, news releases and action alerts to mobilize their sympathizers.

But with negotiations in the hands of a small group of congressional leaders and administration officials, can even the best connected lobbyists influence the process? Is K Street simply engaged in a big display of busywork, or do downtown stakeholders really hold sway?

“They have had an influence, they will have an influence and there’s no way in this form of democracy that you can have major policy changes or keeping the status quo without having groups and therefore lobbyists involved in the solution,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

Thurber added that President Barack Obama “understands” that he has to listen to the business community as well as the unions and issue groups in order to “bring together a coalition to support what he wants to do.”

It turns out that on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, congressional insiders also are looking to K Street as a conduit of information and deal-brokering because the ties between Hill Republicans and the Obama administration are so frayed.

And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in a recent interview that the business community has an important role in putting more pressure on the Republican Party “to engage in compromise and cooperation.”

One high-level congressional GOP aide said that “unlike in previous instances where there hasn’t necessarily been a significant continual ongoing presence on the part of the business community, in the last few weeks both sides have worked hard to engage business leaders.”

And they’re engaged. On Tuesday, 160 CEOs sent a letter to Capitol Hill and to the president urging a resolution to avert the fiscal cliff’s potential for “significant negative economic, employment, and social consequences.”

In a call organized Tuesday afternoon by the CEO lobby the Business Roundtable, the executives said that after numerous meetings with Obama and members of Congress, they could commit to some tax increases as part of a bigger compromise that would also address entitlement changes.

“We really can’t risk the cliff,” Doug Oberhelman, Caterpillar’s CEO, said in the call.

Former Michigan Republican Gov. John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, announced Tuesday that his group was intensifying its lobbying campaign for a resolution. It will include additional radio, TV, print and online ads over the next “crucial week to underscore the importance of getting this done,” Engler said.

The high-level congressional Republican aide added that the business community’s role extends beyond providing a blessing to a deal Obama wants. Republicans, too, are using the CEOs and their lobbyists to press their demands with the White House, thereby creating an “alternate pathway” for information swapping between the two sides.

“You know these CEOs are talking to each side pretty regularly,” this aide said, “so the folks downtown are pretty important in facilitating that.”

It is a mechanism that fills a void, sources said, in a White House that does not have broad reach into the House Republican caucus.

But some observers are skeptical that executive below the CEO level can move the needle all that much.

“It strikes me that once you get into the land of Obama and Boehner and hardly anyone else in the room, I find it really hard to believe that you’re going to change the nature of an agreement too much,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, one of a handful of academics, like Thurber, who specialize in lobbying and interest group politics. “I think that work has already been done.”

Even Jade West, a top lobbyist for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, whose group has been pumping out letters and data to Hill negotiators, concedes, “It’s really difficult to quantify results at this point.”

But West and other business associations, including the National Association of Manufacturers, have found that the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee has amplified their messages. For example, on Monday the panel sent out its “tax tracker,” which highlighted quotes from West’s members, including: Tax increases “will only hurt the businesses, which employ many of the same people Obama believes he is helping.”

West agreed that amid the cacophony of lobbying, it can be difficult to get heard — let alone steer the process.

“You can break through with personal contact,” she said. “We try to give the debate some context, and we’re not stopping.”

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