Business groups have broad agenda to pursue in 2006

Even though lawmakers stayed in session late last year they still left a long “to do” list for their return this month, at least from the perspective of K Street’s business community.

Even though lawmakers stayed in session late last year they still left a long “to do” list for their return this month, at least from the perspective of K Street’s business community.

Longtime goals like an overhaul of laws governing asbestos litigation that has vexed lawmakers for years remain unresolved as leaders pledge to take up new issues such as a sweeping telecommunications reform bill, an effort to update the nation’s telecom laws for the first time in a decade.

Tax cuts, pension reform and efforts to reduce high energy costs all also top corporate America’s priority lists and will likely keep Congress and K Street busy in 2006.

Steven Ross, a lobbyist at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said upcoming midterm elections provide extra incentive for lawmakers to finish earlier in 2006 than they did in 2005. Nevertheless, Ross predicted that “there will be a good deal of significant activity for our firm and other firms and our clients throughout this year.”

Broad changes to the nation’s immigration laws, an issue that could have political impact beyond border-state midterm campaigns, will be among the most difficult to legislate.

Business groups, usually a key Republican constituency, tend to take a more open-door approach to immigration than many in the GOP because businesses fear a constricted labor pool if Congress enacts radical changes to immigration laws.

Immigration reform “can be a real solid legislative accomplishment for Republicans and the president this year,” said Terry Holt, a former spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign who now heads the communications arm of Quinn Gillepsie and Associates. The firm is directing Americans for Border & Economic Security, which supports a combination of tougher border enforcement and guest-worker status for immigrants.

The topic has already led to the creation of a number of umbrella groups of like-minded organizations directed by leading lobbyists in town.

Changes to the U.S. legal system remain a business priority as well, even though business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce realized two goals in 2005: class action and bankruptcy reform.

But asbestos litigation remains a tough hurdle for lawmakers, with companies pushing to get out from under their extensive legal liabilities. Lawmakers are still considering a bill to create a $140 billion trust fund for paying to treat asbestos-related illnesses, and thereby removing the threat of lawsuits.

Various business-led groups, however, hold different views about the best way to distribute such a pot of money.

Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s leading lobbyist, said the issue remains one of his group’s highest priorities, though the chance for success remains “almost impossible to calibrate.”

Pension reform remains another top issue for the Chamber, Josten said. Both the House and Senate passed pension-overhaul bills before the holiday recess. When lawmakers return after the new year, the House and Senate will have to work out their differences in conference before they can send the bill to the president’s desk.

Pension reform is “critical for employers to be able to continue to provide pensions for retirees,” said Tita Freeman, a spokeswoman for the Business Roundtable, a coalition of the CEOs of the largest American companies.

Telecom is another big bill with big backers. The United States Telecom Association (USTA), the group that represents the “Baby Bells,” has become one of the biggest spenders on K Street as it has worked to convince Congress in recent years to update the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

For the first six months of 2005, the group spent $11.4 million on lobbying, more than double what it spent in the first half of 2004, according to Senate lobbying records.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has pledged to move a telecom bill in the first months of the session, and the Senate seems poised to act, too.

“The world has changed,” said Ed Merlis, who directs USTA’s lobbying efforts, speaking about the need for the bill. “The word ‘Internet’ is mentioned in just two sections [of the bill.] One mentions access in schools and one is related to indecency. It has nothing about how you deal with it.”

Business groups also plan to focus on energy production issues as fuel prices, particularly for natural gas, remain high. Paul Cicio, the executive director of Industrial Energy Consumers of America (IECA), said addressing high natural gas costs is an issue that has “finally come of age.”

Though the group favors new efforts to conserve energy, one of its highest priorities is convincing Congress to allow states to drill off their coasts, something now prevented by federal drilling bans.

IECA, a coalition of manufacturers that rely on natural gas to make their products, plans a legislative fly-in in February to lobby Capitol Hill.

Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and limiting the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, are other energy issues likely to reemerge this year.

Business groups also plan to push for extending tax breaks first passed in a broad corporate tax measure adopted in 2004. These extensions include breaks on so-called repatriation of income earned by American businesses overseas, Josten said.

Reductions to capital gains and estate taxes are also priorities, as are a series of legislative changes intended to reduce the cost of healthcare on American business.

Josten said the Chamber will continue to lobby Congress to give trade associations the ability to negotiate with insurance groups’ healthcare plans on behalf of their members. That effort, opposed by state governors and Blue Cross Blue Shield, so far has gained little traction on Capitol Hill.

Freeman said one of the Business Roundtable’s priorities is for Congress to expand loan forgiveness and other incentives to encourage more students to study math and science. The Roundtable supports an effort to double the number of graduates in those fields by 2015.