Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pledged Friday to “double down” on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail against the ultra-conservative forces that threaten the business community’s agenda.
Those forces, which have helped buoy outsider presidential candidates such as Donald Trump, represent “an articulation of frustration” from the American people, Donohue said. Hard-line conservatives also helped wrest the gavel from chamber ally Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.
Still, Donohue said the chamber would welcome Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., as speaker. He said he has closely analyzed the chamber’s toughest conservative critics and come to the conclusion that the chamber is right on the issues.
“And if that’s the case, then I always like to double down,” he said.
Critics, such as Heritage Action for America, have made the chamber a top target, even calling lawmakers who are supportive “pawns of K Street.”
Donohue had harsh words for the tea party groups that have worked to move Republicans to the right, putting the party often at odds with the business world on numerous issues including the Export-Import Bank, raising the nation’s debt ceiling, and comprehensive immigration overhaul.
“When the tea party was first formed, and they had four or five principles of sound economics, reasonable taxation, etc., etc., I mean who can be opposed to that?” Donohue said. “But it has gone far beyond that to the point that it has lost sight of what the fundamental reality is and that is to govern in a way to create economic growth and to create jobs.”
Donohue said the chamber was looking for potential opportunities to oust such hard-liners through the primary process, but he acknowledged that isn’t an easy task.
“We will consider any other opportunity that is presented us on the primary side. Most of them, by the way, don’t materialize,” he told reporters at a roundtable organized by the Christian Science Monitor.
His deputy, Bruce Josten, added that primary challengers need to demonstrate an ability to raise money — and at least a shot at winning.
“We’re not going to put good money after a bad outcome,” Josten said.
Though the Chamber’s political tab could reach as high as $100 million for the 2016 cycle, Donohue declined to discuss any specific dollar amount. The Chamber spent more than $70 million in 2014.
“We will be very aggressive in those elections,” Donohue said. “The amount of money that we spend is something that we don’t talk about; everybody else does. One of the deciding factors is how much money you can raise. We don’t keep it in the basement, and we’re looking forward to a vigorous participation in the electoral process in 2016.”
The chamber is evaluating its endorsements in the House amid the recent GOP turmoil, but Donohue said the Senate remains a top concern with more Republicans up than Democrats. Donohue said the chamber, which backed a handful of Democrats in the 2014 elections, does not support as many Democrats as it once did.
He said he still reaches out to the shrinking group of moderate, pro-business Democrats and added that the hardliners in both parties are “living in a fantasy land,” creating an opportunity for the chamber to reach a majority of Americans in the middle.
“Perhaps what is most important is winning the war on ideas,” he said. “We have an extraordinary level of support from the American business community of all sizes that support continues to grow. … We don’t have a stock price, but I have a stock price of my own: I look at our renewal rate, which is at an all-time high.”
Of the presumptive next speaker, Donohue called Ryan “a man of experience.”
“He chairs perhaps the most significant committee in the House of Representatives in terms of where we’re going on economic growth,” he said.
Though Ryan opposes the chamber over renewal of the Ex-Im Bank, he is largely aligned on such matters as overhauls to immigration and tax laws.
“We’d be very happy to have him,” Donohue said.
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