By Ben Goad and Kevin Bogardus - 01/08/14 04:21 PM EST
The head of the nation’s largest business lobby on Wednesday vowed to protect pro-business candidates in the midterm elections.
Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the business group would make its presence felt this year in the primary process and in races for open seats.
The Chamber is a political juggernaut that spends millions of dollars on television ads, and its endorsements are often decisive in congressional races.
The group reported more than $32 million in independent expenditures during the 2012 election cycle, making it one of the biggest political spenders in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But while the Chamber has long been an election force, it is looking to be more aggressive in spending money in party primaries.
That’s thanks to last year’s government shutdown, which exasperated business groups and other traditional allies of the GOP. Now groups like the Chamber are making plans to oppose Tea Party upstarts.
“We probably now have a good half-dozen places that we are looking at in open seats and primaries where people are looking to challenge particularly long-serving and smart-voting people. We’ll be there in both the House and the Senate,” Donohue said.
Donohue stressed that he has no quarrel with Tea Party groups, noting the Chamber often agrees with their positions, but he said the no-holds-barred tactics favored by the movement have become counterproductive.
“I think they’re well-intentioned people, except when they get to Washington, they’re not going to do what we believe we need to do, so why should we help them get here? And why don’t we protect the people that are here? But don’t line me up as attacking the Tea Party because I’m not,” Donohue said.
Rob Engstrom, the Chamber’s national political director, said the business group has gotten involved in three primaries so far — Rep. Mike Simpson’s (Idaho), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) and Alabama’s special congressional election last year.
Engstrom said the Chamber would consider participating in more primaries, and he told The Hill he is scheduled to meet with Brian Ellis — a primary challenger to Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) — as part of roughly 150 candidate interviews the Chamber conducts each election cycle.
“It used to be the Chamber’s program would wait until Labor Day and then engage in all of our activity. We are not waiting for the environment we are given. We are going to shape the environment now and send a message now on behalf of candidates that support the American free enterprise system and oppose those that stand in the way,” Engstrom said.
Donohue also used his speech Wednesday to take aim at President Obama’s economic policies, saying high taxes, unsustainable entitlements and a robust regulatory program are strangling the economic recovery.
He unveiled a wide-ranging plan to create jobs through boosting domestic energy production, reforming the tax and entitlement systems, and slashing red tape facing the private sector.
The Chamber leader scoffed at suggestions that the country’s slow comeback from the 2008 economic crisis is owed purely to the severity of the recession.
“Misguided government policies have also slowed our growth and cost Americans a lot of jobs and a lot of raises,” Donohue said.
Donohue called for enactment of sweeping immigration reform, and the repeal or replacement of major provisions of the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.
The organization’s legal wing, meanwhile, will ramp up its efforts targeting a host of Obama administration regulations the group sees as overly burdensome, including ObamaCare's requirement that many businesses offer health insurance to their workers or pay a penalty.
The Chamber will also oppose the Education Department’s “gainful employment” rule, which Donohue said discriminates against private sector colleges and universities.
On energy, Donohue called upon Obama to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and increase access to offshore oil reserves that are currently off-limits to drilling.
He said 87 percent of the nation’s offshore oil supply remains locked up, tempering a boom in domestic energy production
“We must have this vital resource,” he said. “Progress has come largely in spite of national policy rather than because of it.”
Donohue also said the business group “will pull out all the stops” to pass immigration reform this year and work toward swift approval of fast-track authority for the administration to move on trade deals. The business chief was not as optimistic about tax reform.
“I don't think you will get comprehensive tax reform in this election year,” Donohue told reporters.
At the same time, the White House and the president’s allies in Congress are touting positive economic signs. Unemployment has dropped to 7 percent following four consecutive months of added jobs.
On Monday, a new jobs report showed that private sector employers added 238,000 jobs in December.
Still, Donohue lamented that some 21 million people in the United States remain unemployed.
“The American economy has struggled to regain its footing,” he said. “The recovery has been the slowest and weakest since World War II.”