Lobby groups hunker down for storm

Greg Nash

Business groups and lobbyists on Wednesday insisted their legislative priorities would be able to survive the upheaval wrought by the looming departure of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Shops up and down K Street acknowledged that Cantor (R-Va.) has been a reliable ally of business, and many said they would be sorry to see him leave the No. 2 slot in House leadership.

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Without Cantor running the floor, lobbyists said they expect they will face an even heavier lift in pushing through major legislation in the chamber such as the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.

Boeing’s stock took a nosedive of 2.3 percent Wednesday amid concern that Cantor’s exit increases the chance the Ex-Im Bank will not be reauthorized. The company is lobbying heavily in favor of the bank, which hands out billions of dollars in loan guarantees that help support jet sales abroad.

“This does create some uncertainty, and we know that business really doesn’t like uncertainty,” said a former GOP aide now working on K Street.

On top of that, business groups said they fear Tuesday’s results could push House Republicans into bunker mode, stalling action on legislation before the midterm elections.

“The path of least resistance is the easiest path for the leadership,” another Republican lobbyist said. “I assume they default to doing nothing, and it keeps everyone safe, electorally.”

Cantor’s loss to the virtually unknown Dave Brat, a college economics professor, occurred as groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce play an increasingly prominent role in Republican primaries this year, standing behind pro-business candidates and against conservative groups that have generally backed upstarts.

The Chamber has poured more than $13 million into the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, though the group did not spend money to help Cantor in his primary.

Conservative groups seeking to take out Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) sat the Cantor contest out as well. Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s president and CEO, bristled at the suggestion that Cantor’s loss was a rebuke to business or evidence of a Tea Party resurgence.

“Oh, come on,” Donohue said to Bloomberg Television. “We have been in 12 primaries since we started this. We have not lost one yet.”

Other business lobbyists echoed Donohue, saying they didn’t fear being at odds with GOP leaders in Congress. They noted it’s too early to know who will step into the leadership vacuum created by Cantor’s defeat, be it current leadership figures like House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) or lawmakers more willing to take on business groups, such as Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

Cantor said Wednesday that he would step down as majority leader at the end of July; House Republicans plan to elect a new leadership team on June 19.

K Street representatives stressed that, besides notable exceptions such as the Ex-Im Bank, there are not many legislative priorities that actually have to get done between now and the swearing-in of a new Congress in January. Business groups are among the advocates pushing for immigration reform, but that always faced long odds this year.

With that in mind, business advocates say they’ll have plenty of time to adapt to the changeover in the House, even if lawmakers like Hensarling move up the ladder. 

Hensarling actively opposes another extension of the Ex-Im bank and has sounded wary of another priority of the financial industry, the reauthorization of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act.

“Let’s say, hypothetically, Hensarling is majority leader,” a GOP lobbyist said. “There’s only so much he can do. There’s still a Democratic Senate and a Democrat in the White House.”

Still, there are sectors that admit they’ll feel Cantor’s loss. The financial and banking sectors viewed Cantor as a Republican who gave them a fair shake even as some conservatives have adopted a more strident tone toward Wall Street in recent years.

Cantor has deep ties to Wall Street, something that political analysts think could have hurt him on Tuesday. The majority leader’s top donors were private equity and investment groups, and Cantor’s wife once worked at Goldman Sachs.

The GOP leader also fought back against House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp’s (R-Mich.) tax reform draft, which included a tax on the largest banks. And after Cantor played an important role in the 2011 debt-limit fight that led to a credit downgrade, banking lobbyists say they had come to see him as one of the adults in the room when it came to crafting legislation.

“If two extremes were to pass, Cantor would be the one to come in and work out a deal eventually,” a financial lobbyist said. “He may not be around to work that deal out.”

Cantor’s role in the House’s fight against government regulations will also be missed, business advocates said.

“Regulations were certainly at the forefront over the last several years under Cantor,” said Sam Batkins, regulatory policy director for the conservative American Action Forum. “Given all of the attention Cantor has paid to regulations in the past, we will be losing his leadership there.”

But lobbyists added that they think there’ll be a window for other Republicans to step up.

“From a micro-perspective, it is a huge loss,” another financial services lobbyist said. “Cantor has been a huge champion for business interests and a voice of reason during Camp’s kamikaze mission to change the tax code.”

“There is a huge opening for an enterprising Republican,” the lobbyist added.

Tim Devaney and Peter Schroeder contributed.