Chamber, House Republicans leave discord over the debt ceiling behind

House Republicans who defied corporate leaders by voting against the debt-ceiling increase last summer will likely have the backing of Washington’s most powerful business lobby come November.

Of the 66 House Republicans who voted against legislation to lift the debt ceiling in August, all but one have scored well enough on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 legislative scorecard to earn a coveted endorsement, according to a review by The Hill.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Chamber endorses candidates who earn a 70 percent rating or higher on the scorecard over their career on Capitol Hill, according to Rob Engstrom, the group’s national political director. The Chamber’s average lifetime rating for the House Republicans who opposed lifting the debt ceiling is more than 85 percent.

“Do we expect them to vote with us 100 percent of time? Absolutely not. Is 95 percent still an A? It is where I am from,” Engstrom said. “We are not going to leave our friends who were 95 percent with us because of one or two votes.”

Retiring Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) is the odd man out among the House Republicans who opposed the debt-ceiling bill, scoring a 64 percent lifetime rating from the Chamber.

Business groups and House Republicans, particularly members of the freshman class, were at loggerheads last year over the debt ceiling.

GOP lawmakers were elected on promises to shrink the government, not expand its credit line, and raising the debt ceiling became a test of their convictions in Congress’s first legislative session. 

Business lobbyists saw the conflict coming, and began an extensive effort to educate freshman Republican members about the issue after the 2010 election. Not lifting the debt ceiling, the lobbyists warned, would throw the economy into a tailspin if the country defaulted on its debts. 

“We knew this was going to be a big issue. We were weighing in early and often on the debt ceiling,” said Ron Eidshaug, the Chamber’s vice president of congressional and public affairs. Eidshaug recounted meeting with a freshman GOP House member at a town hall event a week after the 2010 elections to talk about lifting the debt ceiling.

After a brutal political battle, the House eventually approved a deficit-reduction package that authorized a more than $2 trillion increase to the debt ceiling. The vote was 269-161, with 95 House Democrats also voting no.

The debt-ceiling bill was among 16 different House votes that the Chamber placed on its 2011 scorecard. It was given the same weight as the other votes, which included trade deals with Colombia and South Korea, action against the National Labor Relations Board and repealing the healthcare reform law.

“They don’t get a free pass on this. That vote carries with them on their scorecard the 

entire time they are in Congress,” Eidshaug said. “We are aggressive on all these issues. We certainly were on the debt ceiling.”

The Chamber continues to tussle with the House GOP at times, most recently over reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im). Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, expressed frustration last month with the House Republicans who voted against renewing the bank’s charter.

“It makes us upset that some of them went against us. Some of them typically go against us,” Josten said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “There’s some new people that, I would contend, who don’t truly, to this day, understand Ex-Im as a lending facility or the fact that letters of credit and international trade has been around for a thousand years.” 

Jade West, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, said it’s possible that the House Republicans could find themselves at odds with business groups once more when it’s time to raise the debt ceiling again next year.

“Is there a possibility of disagreements with that group of conservative House Republicans again? Yeah, sure,” West said. “But I don’t see merit in ignoring several other pro-business votes that they have made and will make. … From where I’m sitting, you take in the totality.” 

Nevertheless, Eidshaug said, the Chamber enjoys good relations with the House GOP.

“Look at their scores. They are generally getting As,” Eidshaug said. “The notion that we generally need to bury the hatchet with them is just not the case. … We need to earn their vote, and that’s what we are doing.”

The Chamber will aim to weigh in with television and radio ads in as many competitive congressional races as possible where its endorsed candidates are running. The group will release its endorsements on a race-by-race basis throughout the summer. 

Engstrom said the Chamber could be active in up to 53 House races, and 12 for the Senate. He said the Chamber is “on track” to execute the largest, most aggressive voter-education effort in its 100-year history.

That’s welcome news for the 28 House Republican freshmen who voted against raising the debt ceiling — including several who might be facing competitive races in the fall.

Other groups have not been as kind to House Republicans.

The conservative Club for Growth gives the annual Defender of Economic Freedom Award to lawmakers who vote the group’s position 90 percent of the time or more each year and who have voted with the Club 90 percent of the time or greater during their lifetime in Congress. Only 29 House GOP members who voted against lifting the debt ceiling won the 2011 award.

Unlike the Chamber, the Club opposed lifting the debt ceiling. The group also gave that vote greater weight than did the Chamber, having it count for six points — tying for the group’s highest-valued House vote in 2011, alongside repealing the healthcare reform law. The Club scores lawmakers on a scale up to 100 on several key votes each year, with varying points depending on how significant the vote is.  

“[The award] reflects the fact that a particular member of Congress is a champion of economic freedom and is fighting to save America from economic ruin,” said Barney Keller, the Club’s communications director. “It is certainly something we would like members of Congress to strive for, but the fact of the matter is that many Republicans do not subscribe to those values.” 

Winning the award does not guarantee lawmakers the Club’s support in their race. Further, not receiving the award does not automatically make a lawmaker a Club target. The Club evaluates each race individually and “on average” will jump into 15 to 25 races each election cycle where its endorsement can “really make a difference,” Keller said.

“You’re more likely to be targeted if you get in the 50s or 60s instead of the 70s or 80s. But that’s far from the only factor,” Keller said.

Keller emphasized that the Chamber and the Club have different values.

“There is a difference between being pro-business and being pro-free market. The debt-limit vote, the TARP vote, the stimulus vote were all votes where we were on different sides than the Chamber,” Keller said.