WASHINGTON — If President Barack Obama wants to take the measure of his opposition, he only has to glance across Lafayette Park from the White House. There, behind 10 massive Corinthian columns, is the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a leading critic of the administration's health care and banking overhaul plans.
A fortress for the business community, the chamber has emerged as a multitasking, multimillion-dollar defender of the private sector against presidential initiatives. As lawmakers spend time at home during their August vacation hearing from constituents, the chamber is adding its own heat to the season.
There's a $2 million campaign against Obama's proposals that would make the government a competitor in the health insurance market. It's trying to make the case for insurers, which oppose a government-run insurance alternative but want to work with the White House to mandate coverage for all.
The chamber also has become a pointed critic of a White House plan to create a consumer finance protection agency and is assembling finance sector trade groups to push for a delay in legislation.
With 3 million members, the chamber is working with local and regional affiliates on letter-writing campaigns to lawmakers and plans to track their public appearances to make sure they hear the chamber's point of view.
The summer effort is just a start.
Free enterprise system under attack?
The group also is readying an ambitious $100 million campaign to advocate for businesses and a free enterprise system, which chamber officials believe is under attack. The chamber is putting lawmakers on notice: the issues campaign will be timed to lead into the 2010 congressional elections.
"You've got an administration pushing the federal government into a bigger and bigger footprint," Bruce Josten, the chamber's chief lobbyist, said in an interview. "CEOs start to get concerned when they see that. We felt we needed someone to step into this space."
Critics point out the chamber objects to government interference in the private sector even though it supported federal efforts to rescue the financial industry with hundreds of billions of dollars and to bail out struggling automakers. What's more, the chamber is setting itself up as a foil to the administration on health care while insurers and the health industry seek to negotiate with the White House.
As part of its health care effort, the chamber is running newspaper and online ads against a government-run insurance option that are targeted to moderate Democrats and Republicans in five states. On banking rules, it recently organized the financial industry to call for a delay in legislation that would set up a consumer protection agency.
The chamber stands out for the bluntness of its criticism.
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A trade group representing drug manufacturers, for instance, is running an ad broadly supporting health care changes. In a reversal, the ad features a fictional couple, Harry and Louise, who appeared in ads by the insurance industry in 1993 opposed to President Bill Clinton's health plan.
The insurance industry opposes a government-run alternative to private insurers. But instead of criticizing, America's Health Insurance Plans is running ads encouraging universal coverage and calling for "bipartisan reforms."
"We've been focusing on what we're for," said Robert Zirkelbach, the group's spokesman.
‘Better policy alternatives’
Wary of having the chamber identified as an uncompromising opponent of health care change, Josten caused a stir recently with a letter to the Senate Finance Committee urging action on a bipartisan proposal before the August recess. Republican leaders have demanded that the pace of deliberations slow down. But Josten said "the business community vitally needs better policy alternatives to be proposed by Congress."
Josten said he also wanted to "send a signal of what is passable." What's more, he said, if the committee reached a compromise now, the chamber's policy team would have all of August to scrutinize it. "If it's a terrible bill, it gives me a target," he said.
The health care issue has become prominent on airwaves. So far, the administration has a significant spending advantage, getting support from Organizing for America, which grew out of Obama's presidential campaign and is now a subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee, and from labor and liberal allies.
Evan Tracey, who tracks political advertising as president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, said that as of the first week of August, the amount spent on ads supporting an Obama-styled plan totaled more than $22 million to more than $8 million against it.
One of the leading spenders against Obama's plan is Conservatives for Patients Rights, a group led and largely financed by Rick Scott, a former hospital executive. Scott was chief executive of Columbia/HCA, a health care company that pleaded guilty to overbilling charges.
Tracey identified an additional $22 million in ads — many from the drug or insurance industries — that advocate changes in health care without specifying support for a particular proposal.
‘Drawn the line in the sand very early on’
The chamber's efforts to limit the reach of Obama's banking regulation plans is less visible, matching the issue's lower profile with the public. But the chamber wasted no time taking on the role of overarching critic while the various sectors in the financial industry took issue with more specific aspects of Obama's plans.
The chamber has been especially critical of a proposed agency to regulate consumer financial products such as credit cards and bank loans. It also has objected to proposals that would require shareholders to vote on executive pay packages, even if the votes are nonbinding.
"The chamber on this bill has drawn the line in the sand very early on," said Tom Quaadman, who heads the chamber's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness. "We have made a decision that we are going to be involved in this fight, that we're going to be involved in it in a very big way."
Heather Booth, the campaign director of a pro-regulation coalition of labor and consumer activists called Americans for Financial Reform, said the confrontation over a consumer agency is "being treated as a showdown" The organization has held events outside local chambers of commerce and is putting pressure on moderate and conservative Democrats.
Opponents, Booth said, "are frightening businesses that otherwise would have an interest in reform."
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