GOP tells businesses to speak up

Senate Republicans have grown frustrated with large and small business trade associations for not helping enough to oppose the Democratic healthcare overhaul.

GOP lawmakers have turned their focus on two groups in particular, the Business Roundtable and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which they say should be playing a more active role.

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The Business Roundtable, which represents an alliance of the nation’s top CEOs, responded Wednesday by announcing during a conference call that it would oppose the government-run health insurance plan that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has included in the healthcare bill.

Senate Republican leaders on Oct. 20 called representatives from the Business Roundtable, NFIB and other business groups to a meeting at the Capitol to find out what they planned to do during the upcoming Senate floor debate on healthcare reform, according to sources familiar with the session.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) attended the meeting.

Kyl said there are some industries Republicans are disappointed have not taken a more active role in standing up to Democratic plans to pass a $900 billion package that would levy an array of taxes and fees on businesses.

He said some industries have sat on the sidelines and “some folks that have made some kind of a deal and may live to regret it.”

The pharmaceutical industry, represented by its trade association PhRMA, struck such a deal with the White House. Under the agreement, drug makers will provide $80 billion in savings to seniors in return for Democratic leaders agreeing not to push drug re-importation legislation and other measures manufacturers oppose.

Senate Republicans also suspect the American Hospital Association of striking a deal with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to refrain from strong criticism in return for removing hospitals from the jurisdiction of a new Medicare commission that would determine future changes in federal payments to healthcare providers.

GOP lawmakers also feel aggrieved that mainstream business groups, which have teamed up with them in past battles, are working with Democrats or holding back from criticizing their healthcare plans.

“I would like to see more help from the business sector,” said one senior GOP senator. “We feel like we’re the only ones fighting the battle.”

Thune spoke again to NFIB on Wednesday morning, urging it to play a more active role in the healthcare debate as well as upcoming policy battles over climate change legislation and the card-check bill favored by labor unions.

“I believe they know what the impact of this is going to be and we’re encouraging them to get active at the grassroots level, that their memberships are fully informed and educated about these impacts and if they care about it they’re getting in touch with their delegations,” said Thune.

“We believe a lot of the healthcare proposals are going to be very detrimental to small business in the form of higher taxes and more regulations and a lot more government spending and expansion here.”

Thune said that some business groups are hesitant to criticize the Democratic plans because Democrats have threatened to penalize groups that oppose them.

“There’s a belief that Democrats have tried to create among these organizations [the belief] that [healthcare] is going to happen, so either get out of the road or get run over,” he said.

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Thune said he has not criticized groups in meetings but, instead, tried to motivate them to do more.

“There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “We can ratchet things up a level.”

GOP leaders tried to get groups more involved at last week’s meeting, which included the Business Roundtable, NFIB, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Benefits Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and other business groups, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

“It wasn’t so much a message to say, ‘This is what you need to do,’ but more a query about ‘Where are you on healthcare reform and what are you going to do?’ ” said a person familiar with the meeting. “It was an inquiry rather than an inquisition.”

Republicans have praised the efforts of the Chamber, which has launched a nationwide campaign to highlight tax increases in Democratic healthcare proposals, but grumbled about the lack of support from NFIB and the Business Roundtable.

A spokesman for NFIB did not return a request for comment. The Business Roundtable has responded to criticism by noting that it is a nonpartisan group that works with Democrats and Republicans.

NFIB, the Business Roundtable, the National Retail Federation and the American Benefits Council are several mainstream business groups that have negotiated with Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Health Committee and the Finance Committee over healthcare reform for much of the past year.

The National Retail Federation has begun to voice strong concerns with Democratic bills in the Senate and House, but the other groups are still working with Democratic lawmakers in the hope of modifying the final healthcare reform bill.

“We want to see a bipartisan product,” said Jason Hammersla, a spokesman for the American Benefits Council. “We’re a group that works with Democrats and Republicans.”

Business groups that have come out against the emerging Senate Democratic healthcare plan say they favor reforming the healthcare system but argue that the pending bills would not lower costs.

“Individual companies are ginned up to oppose the Democratic plans, but some of the trade associations are scared. It’s silly,” said a senior GOP aide.

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Republicans say that some business groups are cowed by the belief that Democrats are going to pass their healthcare package and industries will suffer if they don’t cooperate.

“Some trade association representatives have told us they’ve been invited to negotiate the final details [of healthcare reform], but we’re telling them this is far from over,” said the aide.

Another GOP aide predicted that business groups would become more vocal once Reid unveils the details of the healthcare bill headed for the Senate floor.

“There’s no target to shoot at right now,” said the aide.